DIR/WRI: Mariana Rondón • PRO: Marité Ugas • DOP: Micaela Cajahuaringa • ED: Marité Ugas • MUS: Camilo Froideval • DES: Matías Tikas • CAST: Samuel Lange Zambrano, Samantha Castillo, Beto Benites, Nelly Ramos
In Venezuela’s capital of Caracas, the health of president Hugo Chávez is rapidly deteriorating and his loyal supporters are turning to desperation. Many are holding large prayer meetings in the hope of a miracle. Others are shaving their heads in support of the stricken president. While one man, driven what he calls divine voices in his head, has killed his mother as a sacrifice, chopping off her hands and arms in the process. At the same time, nine-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) needs a photo for his school ID and is determined to find a way of straightening his curly hair in order to have the appearance of a singer, a goal which puts at odds with his newly widowed mother (Samantha Castillo), fracturing their already turbulent relationship. In Pelo Malo, which translates to “Bad Hair”, writer/director Mariana Rondón uses the story of a family, in this case between a mother and a son, as means to examine Venezuelan society and the role of masculinity and appearance.
The social-realist style of the film brings us straight into this world. The primary setting is the run-down housing blocks, a place where the sound of gunshots is a to common occurrence, where Junior lives with his mother and infant brother. It is in this tough world that Junior, going against the macho posing that surrounds him, looks for different way to straighten his hair from using mayonnaise to cooking oil.
His behaviour worries his mother and appears to go against what her ideas of masculinity should be and regularly treats him with hostility. She resents the difference in her son, from the way he dances, more calm and dream-like, when hanging around the more energetic break-dancing boys to the obsession with his appearance. His behaviour leads her to the conclusion that he is gay, though the film leaves it ambiguous to whether the resentment she feels towards her son is due to the concern over his safety in such a hostile environment or due to her feeling ashamed that her son is “different”.
Marta’s ideas of masculinity seem reflective of society as whole. Men must act like “men”, an image of toughness must be projected at all times no matter what age. This is shown when Junior with his friend Nina visits a photographer who suggests that hepose for his picture as an action man style soldier, with beret, rifle and camouflage. Junior’s adamant refusal of this suggestion, defiantly declaring that he will “pose as a singer with straight hair” signals his rejection of what is expected of him.
It is odd that she would resent her son’s refusal of gender stereotyping when she herself is attempting to do the exact same, in her refusal of working in cleaning jobs in order to attain work as a security job. Her frustrations with the refusals and exploitations of her bosses, could also be another factor in her growing animosity towards her son but is also telling of the position of women in society, where they are expected to fulfil male needs and desires first if they have any chance to get ahead.
While Junior is challenging his mother’s ideas of masculinity with his actions, Rondón uses his behaviour as a method to look at the idea of identity in Venezuela, not just gender but also of race. Junior’s father was of Afro-Caribbean decent and his desire to get rid of his curly hair could be seen as a way of dissenting himself from his heritage, a comment perhaps on the position of black people in Venezuelan society compared to those of European heritage.
With the aid of two fantastic central performances from Lange and Castillo, Pelo Malo is an uncompromising look at modern Venezuelan life, a life where large numbers of people are expected to make sacrifices for their beloved leader but any personal sacrifice one makes to try and claim some identity gets shut down, which only leads to bitterness and resentment.
Pelo Malo is released 13th February 2015