In Costa Rica’s contender for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, “Imprisoned” (Presos), director and co-writer Esteban Ramirez gives the viewer two Latin American films for the price of one.
Ramirez told teleSUR it is a “great honor and responsibility” to be considered for an Oscar.
“It gives us great pleasure to compete because the film achieved important success among the public and the support of the critics in Costa Rica, which for me is always one of the biggest challenges, to gain the approval of your own people,” he said.
At once a grittily realistic film about life in an overcrowded prison and intimate family drama about a girl growing up, “Imprisoned” manages to put an original twist on the old bad-boy-meets-good-girl story.
Ramirez, who is on his third feature film, is fast-becoming known as a director who tackles Costa Rican social issues—issues that in fact affect much of the Americas. Local English-language news source The Tico Times calls him Costa Rica’s answer to Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, who went from directing “Amores Perros” in Mexico to become the toast of the 2015 Academy Awards for “Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
Ramirez certainly does not shy away from heavy topics. “Caribe” (Caribbean), his first feature from 2004, which looks at the murky world of the oil industry, became Costa Rica’s first-ever entry in 2005 to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while “Gestation,” from 2009, tacked teenage pregnancy and abortion in his Catholic country. His next project, he told teleSUR, will be “an intimate crime film, probably the most experimental film I have made.”
With “Imprisoned,” Rodriguez turns his lens to the country’s overcrowded prison system, which is currently working at 300 percent capacity, with almost 4,000 more prisoners than it was designed to hold. In October, 240 inmates were selected by Costa Rica’s National Institute of Criminology for early release, while hundreds of others will be relocated to ease the overcrowding.
This is a problem Ramirez grew up learning about. His father, Víctor Ramirez, made the seminal 1975 documentary, “Los Presos,” which showed the miserable conditions in which the inmates at the old Central Penitentiary—today the Children’s Museum—were forced to live.
Ramirez’s modern film does not shirk this influence. On the contrary, Ramirez the younger not only includes sections of the black and white documentary in his credits, but constantly echoes its haunting pace and shots in the prison scenes of “Imprisoned,” shot on location in Section 10 of La Reforma, a large prison outside the capital, using real inmates. Ramirez and lead actor Leynar Gomez held acting workshops with inmates that inspired 250 of the 2,300 inmates to participate in the movie.
"It was very exciting to see them interact and excited about this project. I credit them for the experience I had," Gomez on the set of the film, according to La Nacion.
“Imprisoned” star Natalia Arias speaks at a screening of the film with director Esteban Ramirez (R) | Photo: Facebook / Esteban Ramirez
The elevator pitch for “Imprisoned” is something like: We are all imprisoned; we all have chains. Even before the main character, Victoria, meets prisoner Jason, it is clear she is not satisfied with her life. Natalia Arias plays Victoria, a girl from a middle class family, bags a new job that leads to her getting to know a prison inmate, intimately, to the horror of those around her. We simultaneously get to know Jason mostly as Victoria does, but with more insight than her into his life behind bars.
At first, Victoria appears to have everything—friends, a stable and loving boyfriend, a nuclear family—but we soon see not all is as it seems. She and her sister squabble all the time; her vilified father came back to the family with tail between his legs after having an affair; her mother’s a depressive, for whom Victoria left high school before graduating to look after; and her boyfriend is controlling.
Will they break free of their chains or stay ensnared by them?
The film ends up being a mix of tough prison life and a love story with parallels to 2004’s “Maria Full of Grace” and, oddly, 1987’s “Dirty Dancing.” This is especially noticeable from the movie’s poster, which shows the couple dancing, emphasizing the idea that it is when they dance that the couple feel free from their chains. It’s also noticeable from the sisters’ relationship, the bad boy Jason “leading” younger, innocent but willing Victoria astray, as Johnny does with Baby, the oppressive family and the close confines that both movies explore (prison and a summer camp in the Catskills).
Both lead characters are outstanding, and the chemistry is palpable. La Nacion quoted Arias saying she loved the character of Victoria and talked about her complexities, “she is in a state of deep personal exploration that she goes through alone … she is also realizing that she owns her own life.
“Victoria is trying to find her own freedom, her own choices, her own independence as a woman. Living untethered.”
Victoria’s internal conflict, as well as her developing relationship with Jason are handled well, with the couple’s increasingly long phone conversations tightly shot with close ups, enhancing the intimacy between them, as well as the stakes. The recurrent earthquakes are woven in to remind us that some things affect everyone, no matter where they are, and bring the protagonists closer through experience.
The moments of freedom they achieve together are fleeting in the contexts of their complicated lives, which come with many strings.
The film has some pacing issues and it places too much emphasis on Victoria’s new boss, which misdirects the viewer to think more is going to happen with him than does (perhaps this is because Alejandro Aguilar is the movie’s biggest star, or perhaps something was cut). The two elements of the film, the two messages it wants to send—about prison life and about a young woman’s process of growth—are sometimes immiscible.
However, the prison scenes are so effective and the love story so believable thanks to the great leading actors that “Imprisoned” is a more than deserving candidate for awards season.
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