By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/14/21 – Fütbol (soccer) and novellas (soap operas) reign supreme in Latin American popular culture and Javier Fuentes-Léon’s latest feature film Las Mejores Familias (The Best Familiies, Peru, 2020) takes on that world of novellas with his biting satire about deep-rooted prejudice, social class privilege, and family secrets. Included in the line-up for Outfest 2021, Las Mejores Familias will screen on Saturday, August 14, at 1:30 pm at the Harmony Gold Preview House on Sunset Boulevard. The film is an upstairs/downstairs comedy of manners set in the wealthy district of San Isidro in Lima, Peru. In Lima, Peru, like in most modern-day Peruvian cities, there is, extreme social fragmentation and class inequality. Fuentes-León, who says: “We wanted to make a film that would be a mirror in which to reflect what separates us, but also what unifies us. And what better tool than humor to invite us to face our social faults.” With a wonderful ensemble cast, Fuentes-Léon tells a tale about two aristocratic families in Lima and the people who work for them, maintaining their huge estate-sized houses and pampering the well-to-do women and their extended families.
At the center of the story are two sisters, Luzmila (Tatiana Astengo) and Peta (Gabriela Velásquez) who inherit their mother’s job and work as housemaids for upper-class families. It so happens that Luzmilla and Peta are working at two houses which are next door to one another in San Isidro, so they travel each day from their humble abode south of Lima along the Panamerican Highway by bus and micro-bus to get to center of Lima and their respective jobs as housemaids for the two señoras – Carmen (Gracia Olayo) and Alicia (Grapa Paoloa). During the opening credits, we see the two sisters rise early and pack up for the long trip in traffic to get to their work. Carmen has two children who she leaves with her retired mother Yolanda (Haydée Cáceres) who is busy in the morning already watching Peruvian novellas (soap operas) on the television. Curiously, the novella playing on the television set resembles the very households in which her daughters work.
The routines of both households are quite predictable. Carmen is the richest of the two matrons and seems confident, despite the death of her husband 30 years ago. Alicia’s husband Fernando (Augusto Mazzarelli) is strapped with debts and tries to avoid confronting his wife. Both matrons are used to breakfast-in-bed which the kitchen staff prepare and the housemaids carry upstairs in an amusing split-screen manner. Later, on the telephone Alicia tells Carmen of her plans for a big dinner party to celebrate the arrival of her son Andres (César Ritter) from Spain, where he has been living and working as a writer for a number of years. He is dating a young woman named Merche (Jely Reátegui) and she is accompanying him from Madrid. And then there is Mamama Tete (the marvelous Sonia Seminario), the all-knowing weed-smoking grandmother who relies on Sandra, Alicia’s youngest daughter, to get her weed that they hide in the so-called “little house” on the property-line between the two estates.
That is the set-up for what will soon turn into a comedy of errors, when Andres finally arrives from Spain with a beaming Merche at Cecilia’s large home. Immediately the housemaid Luzmila rushes out to greet Andres and Merche, and is overjoyed and puzzled by this young woman who she thinks she recognizes. How could that be possible? The families inside the dining room peer out, trying to make sense of what they are seeing and then greet them. We are introduced to more family members: Alvaro (Giovanni Ciccia), Carmen’s eldest son and married to a woman named Carolina; Mariano (Marco Zunino), Carmen’s gay son who is dating the fütbol-loving guy named Jano (Robert Cano); Lici (Jimena Lindo), Alicia’s eldest daughter with three kids and married to Ernesto, who is probably cheating on her although he pays off her father’s debts. The minute that Sandra has a moment to talk to the newly-arrived Andres, she questions him about his finance Merche who she suspects is not really his girl fiend at all, as Andres had supposedly been gay for years and even used to date Mariano, the son of Carmen, the next-door neighbor. Is he gay or isn’t he? That will be only one of the questions that shape the remainder of this lively comedy.
At a reunion lunch, a crucial secret kept for decades is revealed and that turns the idealized world of these two upper-class Lima families upside down. It is the trigger that forces everyone to air their dirty laundry and redefine the concept of “family” and even that of “employee of the family.” Fuentes-León reminds us that the intricacies of the main plot of this web of deceptions and errors has a lot to do with class struggle and then, with a patient and almost invisible determination, he dynamites everything and leaves us scratching our heads about denial and acceptance. The dying illusions of the upper-class are set against the street protests that have been re-routed through San Isidro and the likelihood that these last grand estate-sized homes will soon be demolished for the construction of high-rise luxury condominiums. There are many family secrets that will be revealed in the second and third acts of this black comedy. Much of the enjoyment of watching the film is seeing how all these revelations affect both families as well as the sisters who are housemaids and yet all to privacy to the affairs of both families.
It is a pleasure to watch the events unfold in the rest of the film and the zany, fast-paced dialogues that drive the conversations. The humor is there, but we also sense the seriousness of the film’s critique of class struggle in a kind of Buñuelian way. Fuentes-Léon is a gifted scriptwriter and it is his sure touch that makes the characters come alive. Working with a great ensemble cast of Peruvian actors, the director is able to elicit the comedic tone he wanted. Some of the actors like Tatiana Astengo (who plays the housemaid Luzmila) have been in his other films – Contracorriente (Undertow, 2009) and El elefante desaparecido (The Vanished Elephant, 2014). Las Mejores Familias (2020) has appeared at film festivals in Malaga and Miami, where the film received nominations for best film. The film has distributors in Peru and Colombia.
The Best Families (Las Mejores Familias) screens at the Harmony Gold Preview House on Sunset Boulevard on Saturday, August 14, at 1:30 pm. In-person tickets are available; to opt for a virtual screening, the film will be available online from 8/15 through 8/17. Go to: https://outfestla2021.com/the-best-families-las-mejores-familias/