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‘Temblores’ addresses love that hurts in Guatemala

Forced to choose family and status or true love



Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s explores the relationship between a closeted man and his lover in ‘Temblores.’ (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

The reason for the title of Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s “Temblores” becomes clear within its first few minutes, when the tempestuous anguish of a family conflict is suddenly rendered immaterial for a few brief minutes as the earth begins to shake violently. It’s Guatemala, where earthquakes happen frequently, and they are taken very seriously.

Even before this literal “tremor” strikes, however, the filmmaker’s masterful prologue sequence hints at deeper layers of the movie’s title by pulling us immediately into the situation of Don Pablo, the younger son of a wealthy and influential Guatemala City family, just as his world begins to fall apart. Despite his flawless image as a happily married, devout Christian heterosexual man, he has a male lover – and his secret has come out, even if he hasn’t. As the film opens, he drives through the stormy night into the family estate to face the fallout from the revelation, and even though we don’t know any of that yet, the sense of impending disaster is palpable.

The ensuing confrontation predictably, is histrionic to the point of being comical – or would be, if it weren’t for the ugliness wrapped inside the unanimous recriminations being hurled at him by his wife, parents, and the other members of the extended clan. Despite the temporary reprieve granted by the rumbling threat of natural disaster, his personal life has been turned upside down. No longer welcome at home, he moves in with his boyfriend, Francisco – liberated, out, and completely comfortable with his sexuality – while still attempting to protect himself and his family from “shame” and scandal. At first, he embraces his freedom and the bliss he feels with Francisco; but as his conservative religious family ramps up the pressure and the whispered rumors and secrets cost him his job and his status, he finds himself being pulled inexorably backward. Powerless against the combined force of the evangelical church and the deeply homophobic Guatemalan legal system, he will be forced to make a choice: stay with Francisco in his newfound gay life and lose everything he’s ever had, including his beloved children, or do whatever it takes, even submitting to church-directed “therapy,” to return to his family and give up the only authentic adult love he’s ever known.

For U.S. audiences (at least the ones that are likely to seek out “Temblores”), the subject matter Bustamante tackles here has become familiar enough – so familiar, in fact, that the movie’s raw truth may catch them off guard. Conditioned by American film narrative conventions, viewers here are almost certain to expect that love and reason will ultimately prevail and the movie’s protagonist is sure, after a perfunctory emotional struggle, to come out on the right side of his journey and find a way to make peace between his two worlds – or at least the hope of it.

That expectation is part of what gives this exquisitely crafted drama so much power. Pablo’s world is not a Hollywood fantasy, and the reality it shows us is one that goes against the grain in a culture that is, by comparison, as free-thinking and progressive as the one we are privileged to enjoy in America – or at least in its cosmopolitan areas. This is not the cultural climate we are used to seeing in movies about contemporary LGBTQ life; despite the seeming sophistication of its urban setting, under the surface it more closely resembles the oppressively homophobic atmosphere seen in “Brokeback Mountain,” and however confident we may be of a happy ending, such an outcome seems less and less certain as the film goes on.

As for the romance at its center, we might be conditioned also to cling to the bond between Pablo and Francisco as the shelter that will protect them – and us – from the metaphoric tremors that rumble through their lives. Bustamante has not made a love story, however, no matter how tempted we may be to view it through that lens; the heartfelt authenticity he bestows upon the relationship between his two leading men – aided immeasurably by the beautiful performances of Juan Pablo Olyslager (Pablo) and Mauricio Armas Zebadúa (Francisco) – might give us temporary respite and hope, but it also serves to provide a stark contrast between the two conflicting parts of Pablo’s life.

In fact, it’s contrast that fuels “Temblores.” Not only does the telenovela-level near-absurdity of Pablo’s family turmoil appear in stark relief to the blissful oasis he shares with Francisco, so too does the gap between the ideals projected by the church and the actions and behaviors they inspire. Pablo’s family refer to the damage he is causing, yet we repeatedly watch as their various responses to the situation wreaks havoc on all of their own lives; they refer to his sexuality as an “illness,” yet it’s they who seem to be sick. Watching a roomful of anguished churchgoers, arms flailing feverishly as they raise their voices in a cacophony of desperate prayer, it’s hard not to be reminded of the kind of imagery more typically associated with suffering sinners in hell.

That brings home the point of Bustamante’s film, of course. As the filmmaker himself has put it, “It’s a movie that speaks about conditional love, shameful love, love that hurts, about the divine and celestial love that is needed in a context where the earth trembles and destroys everything. The love that gives us an excuse for our extraordinary mastery of double standards.” It’s a context within which it becomes heartbreakingly understandable how a man like Pablo, well-educated and with access to an equally real world where he is free to be who he truly is for the first time in his life, can be trapped into making a choice that denies him his own happiness in favor of satisfying a code of morality he has already recognized as false.

As disconcerting as that realization might be, it’s even more upsetting to recognize that such a situation is still very much a fact of real life for many LGBTQ people all around the world. It’s a testament to Bustamante’s skills as a writer and a director that he has made a film of such nuance and observational honesty that we can view all those involved, even those who oppress themselves in the name of their own oppressors, with compassion.

“Temblores” has met with acclaim at film festivals internationally, including a win as Best Narrative Feature at New York’s NewFest and a Best Actor prize for Olyslager’s charismatic performance at LA’s Outfest. It opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 6.

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Laverne Cox Dives into the Uglies World

Cox is the latest cast member to be announced, although exactly which role she plays is still a guarded secret



Laverne Cox via Netflix

BURBANK – Imagine a world where at 16, you were forced into an operation that made you conventionally “pretty” along with the rest of the humans in the world.  That is the theme of the new Netflix film Uglies, based on the international best-selling dystopian fantasy novel by Scott Westerfeld.

Laverne Cox is the latest cast member to be announced, although exactly which role she plays is still a guarded secret. Joey King, Brianne Tju, Keith Powers and Chase Stokes were previously announced.

Whatever role Cox plays, her participation stays consistent with her brand of finding one’s authenticity and fighting to live as their truest self.  

Amazon describes the novel’s plot, of which the film is based as: “Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. In just a few weeks she’ll have the operation that will turn her from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty. And as a pretty, she’ll be catapulted into a high-tech paradise where her only job is to have fun. But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to become a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world—and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally a choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. Tally’s choice will change her world forever.”

Of the casting, Cox posted on her Instagram, “I feel so blessed to be an artist hopefully getting better at my craft, certainly working hard to do so. What a privilege this film is, based on a powerful young adult book series by @scott_westerfeld!! What a privilege to work with such incredibly talented and committed young actors and @mcgfilm, our incredible director, oh McG you’re just incredible. Stay tuned!”

Cox will also star in the upcoming Netflix series Inventing Anna. Shonda Rhimes and her Shondaland partner, Betsy Beers, are executive producing that 10 episode series.  It is based on a true story in which a grifter faked being an heiress and fooled New York’s high society with her scam.

Uglies will be directed by McG, and has producers John Davis and Jordan Davis for Davis Entertainment Company; Robyn Mesinger for Anonymous Content; Dan Spilo for Industry Entertainment; and McG and Mary Viola for Wonderland at the helm.  Joey King, Jamie King, Scott Westerfeld, John Fox are executive producing.

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Online Culture

Vlogger StanChris; My religious mom reacts to Norway’s “gay Santa” ad

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s gay Santa advertisement! Let’s see what she has to say about it.



Screenshot via YouTube

LOS ANGELES – The twenty-something StanChris, the Out YouTuber who has been building his audience on his YouTube channel by vlogging about the ordinary everyday experiences of his life as a young gay guy is back- this time interviewing his mother.

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s gay Santa advertisement! Let’s see what she has to say about it.

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s “gay Santa” ad


S O C I A L – L I N K S

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Verhoeven returns with subversive tale of lesbian nun in ‘Benedetta’

Period drama delivers sex, violence, and horrors of the Black Death



Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in ‘Benedetta.’ (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

There was a time when Paul Verhoeven was a big deal in Hollywood.

The Dutch filmmaker first attracted international attention during an early career in his homeland, with critically acclaimed movies like “Turkish Delight” and “Soldier of Orange,” which found an audience outside of the Netherlands and brought him greater opportunities in America, Once here, he adapted his style to fit a more commercial mold and forged a niche for himself with violent, action-packed sci-fi blockbusters, scoring major hits with “Robocop” and “Total Recall” before reaching a pinnacle with “Basic Instinct” – arguably still his most influential and iconic film.

Then came “Showgirls.” Although the Joe Eszterhas-scripted stripper drama is now revered as a “so-bad-it’s-great” cult classic, it was a box office bomb on its initial release, and its failure, coupled with the less-spectacular but equally definitive flopping of his next film, “Starship Troopers,” effectively put an end to his climb up the Hollywood ladder.

That was not, however, the end of his story. Verhoeven moved back to his native country (where he was hailed as a returning hero) and rebounded with the critically lauded “Black Book” before spending the next two decades developing and producing new projects with other filmmakers. In 2016, he assumed the director’s seat again, this time in France, and the resulting work (“Elle”) put him once more into the international spotlight.

Now, he’s back with another French film, and fans of his signature style – a blend of social satire, psycho-sexual themes, graphic violence, and near-exploitation-level erotic imagery that has prompted some commentators to label him as a provocateur – have every reason to be excited.

“Benedetta,” which receives its long-delayed (due to COVID) release in the U.S. on Dec. 3, is the real-life story of a Renaissance-era Italian nun (Virginie Efira), whose passionate devotion to her faith  – and especially to Jesus – sparks disturbing and dramatic visions. When young novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) enters the convent and is assigned to her as a companion, it awakens a different kind of passion, and as their secret relationship escalates, so too do her miraculous episodes, which expand to include the physical manifestation of stigmata. Soon, despite the skepticism of the Mother Abbess (Charlotte Rampling), she finds herself heralded as a prophet by the other sisters and the local community, leading to controversy, investigation, and a power struggle that threatens the authority of the church itself.

Inspired by “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” Judith C. Brown’s biography of the real Sister Benedetta, Verhoeven’s latest work is perhaps his most quintessential to date. In his screenplay (co-written with “Elle” collaborator David Birke), the Dutch auteur – who is also a widely recognized, if controversial, religious scholar – gives free reign to his now-familiar obsessions, weaving them all together into a sumptuously realized period drama that delivers copious amounts of nudity and sex, bloody violence, and the horrors of the Black Death while exploring the phenomenon of faith itself. Is Benedetta a saint or a harlot? Is she chosen by God or mentally ill? Are her visions real or is she a fraud, cynically exploiting the beliefs of those around her in a bold-faced grab for power and glory? And if she’s lying, in the larger context of a world held firmly in the grip of a church that treats salvation as transactional and levies its presumed moral authority to unlimited financial and political gain, which is greater evil? Though the film strongly implies the answers lie somewhere between the “either/or” of absolutes, it shrewdly leaves the viewer to contemplate such questions for themselves.

What concerns “Benedetta” more than any esoteric debate is a sly-yet-candid commentary on the various levels of societal hierarchy and the ways in which the flow of power perpetuates itself through their devotion to maintaining the status quo. As Benedetta’s perceived holiness carries her upward through the strata, from unwanted daughter of the merchant class to Mother Superior and beyond, more important than the veracity of her claims of divinity are the shifting and carefully calculated responses of those she encounters along the way. Fearing the loss of their own power, they ally and oppose themselves in whichever direction will help them maintain it. It’s a Machiavellian game of “keep-away” in which those at the top will not hesitate to use economic class, gender, sexuality, and – if all else fails – torture and execution as weapons to repress those they deem unworthy.

Inevitably, the above scenario provides plenty of fodder for Verhoeven’s movie to make points about religious hypocrisy, systemic oppression, and the way white heterosexual cisgender men keep the deck eternally stacked in their own favor – all of which invites us to recognize how little things have changed in the five centuries since Sister Benedetta’s time. That, too, is right in line with the director’s usual agenda.

Ultimately though, the signature touch that makes the movie unmistakably his is the way it revels in the lurid and sensational. Verhoeven delights in presenting imagery designed to shock us, and key elements of the film – from hyper-eroticized religious visions and explicit lesbian sex, to the prominent inclusion of a blasphemous wooden dildo as an important plot point – feel deliberately transgressive. This should be no surprise when one remembers that this is the director who brought us not only “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” but also “The Fourth Man,” a homoerotic psychological thriller from 1983 still capable of making audiences squirm uncomfortably today; and while all this titillation may trigger the most prudish of viewers, it makes “Benedetta” into a deliciously subversive, wild-and-wooly ride for the rest of us. More to the point, it underscores the film’s ultimate observation about the empowering nature of sexual liberation.

Helping Verhoeven make maximum impact with this obscure historical narrative is a cast that clearly relishes the material as much as he does. In the title role, the statuesque Efira successfully creates a compelling and charismatic figure while remaining an enigma, someone we can believe in equal measure might be sincere or corrupt and with whom we can empathize either way; likewise, Patakia exudes savvy and self-possession, transcending moral judgment as the object of her affection, and the two performers have a palpable chemistry, which is made all the more compelling by their thrillingly contemporary approach to the characters. Rounding out the triad of principal roles is Rampling, a cinematic icon who brings prestige and sophistication to the table in a masterful performance as the Abbess; more than just a grounding presence for her younger co-stars, she provides an important counterbalance with a subtle and layered performance as a woman who has devoted her life to a belief in which she has no faith, only to find herself overshadowed by a charlatan.

“Benedetta” is not exactly the kind of film that’s likely to put Verhoeven back on the Hollywood fast track – it’s far too radical in its underpinnings for that. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to form from a unique and flamboyant filmmaker we’ve missed for far too long, and his fans – along with anybody with a taste for provocative cinema – should consider it a must-see.

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