Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Karen Cries on the Bus (Cajanegra Producciones, Schweizen Media Group, Filmmovement.com, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a 2011 Colombian indie called Karen Cries on the Bus, which was billed as a modern-day rewrite of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (which I don’t know, and which according to the notes director/writer Gabriel Rojas Vera contributed to the press kit ends where his movie begins: with the unfulfilled wife leaving her asshole husband and suddenly facing the task of making both a living and a life on her own) but seemed to me to be sort of an update of Diary of a Mad Housewife, An Unfinished Woman and those other 1970’s first-flush-of-feminism (second wave) movies in which a personally, emotionally, psychologically and sexually unfulfilled housewife leaves her boring and/or passive-aggressively abusing husband, has a brief relationship with another man and emerges single but also proud and with a new sense of her own identity.

The film takes place in Bogotá, which for once in a movie is not depicted as a hell-hole of corruption, drug-dealing and murder, but a pretty ordinary place, and as the movie opens the first thing we see is, indeed, Karen (Angela Carrizosa) crying on a bus. She’s carrying all her belongings in a small suitcase — one of those ones with rollers and a pull handle so you can drag it along with you instead of having to carry it — and she shows up in the middle of the night at a ratty rooming house whose landlady doesn’t want to open the door for her but changes her mind when Karen says she can pay three months’ rent, 540,000 pesos (maybe Colombia isn’t the drug-fueled danger zone it used to be but it seems as if it’s still subject to one of Latin America’s other chronic economic diseases, inflation), in advance. She tries to make as comfortable as existence as possible in a sleazepit where the sink hangs loose from the wall, the shower is chronically dirty (this flashed me back to my days living in a residence hotel, where I took cleanser into the communal bathroom and cleaned out the tub every time I bathed) and there’s a cockroach crawling across the bathroom floor. (Karen complains to the landlady and asks what she should do — and the landlady tells her, calmly, “Kill it.”) Karen also looks for a job, leaves a résumé at a bookstore but is told they’re not hiring, and instead takes a job with a scam “sales” outfit called “American Dream” that supposedly sells English courses to Colombians eyeing el Norte but really makes its money ripping off its salespeople. Later she picks up an odd job distributing flyers on the street. She also gets to see a woman give a man a blow job in the window across the courtyard from hers on the first night she spends there.

Later she meets neighbor Patricia (Angelica Sanchez), who has a boyfriend named Horacio but who also dates other guys, including a married man named Alfredo who treats her to nice meals and drinks in exchange for sex — Patricia is drawn as the sort of person who’s effectively a prostitute but has managed to avoid the direct exchange of sex for money and therefore can remain in denial of what she’s doing with the men in her life. Meanwhile, Karen hits on a scam that becomes one of her main sources of income when her purse is stolen in a restaurant — or at least she says it is — and she leaves the proprietor with her wedding ring as collateral, then regularly shows up at bus stops and says her purse has just been stolen and begs for change, which she gets from a surprising number of people (probably more than would give money to such a person here!). Later she’s caught shoplifting in a supermarket and it’s touch and go whether she’s going to be charged restitution (apparently according to Colombian law, or at least that store’s policy, she can be held liable for three times the value of the items she stole), made to have sex with the store’s creepy security person, or just allowed to leave — which is what he does in the end, telling her never to come back there again.

Eventually, through Patricia and Alfredo, she meets a potential boyfriend named Eduardo (Juan Manuel Diaz Oroztegui), who has a professional job in an office but also writes plays in his spare time and has actually got one produced (or did he bankroll it himself?). Eduardo and Karen become an “item” and they start seeing again and ultimately make it to bed — despite Karen’s concern that he won’t like her because she has small breasts — and the film’s climax comes when the bookstore she left her résumé at finally calls her with a job offer at just the time Eduardo wants her to come away with him to Argentina, where he’s been offered a writing job. At first she’s willing to go with him, but at one point he tells her, “Pick up my jacket for me, will you?” — and at that point she realizes that even though he may be hotter and more interesting he’s as much a male-chauvinist pig as her ex-husband Mario, so she stays in her ratty room, works at the bookstore and ends up single but proud, and in the final scene she’s watching as another woman is crying on the bus she’s on.

Karen Cries on the Bus may have an awkward title (it’s a literal translation of the original Spanish one, Karen llora en el Bus) but it’s a marvelous film, not really extending the art of the cinema very much but telling a warm, human story, keeping us identifying with the central character and wanting the best for her, and telling its story in a series of anecdotes that seem to have no more connection with each other than the events of a real life. It’s also quite remarkably directed and cast; Angela Carrizosa as the lead is neither more nor less attractive than she should be — neither the old bag nor the sexpot that Hollywood would cast in a role like this; she’s not drop-dead gorgeous but she’s easy on the eyes and one could readily imagine a man of the world like Eduardo being genuinely attracted to her emotionally as well as sexually. It’s the sort of understated drama that American filmmakers almost never make (though the truth might be that they aren’t allowed to make them unless they finance them themselves), and it made it to the library as a selection of the alternative DVD club filmmovement.com, which should be worthwhile checking out.