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40 Days: Pelo Malo

Venezuelan filmmaker Mariana Rondón’s Pelo Malo (2013) follows Junior and his mother Marta in a rough Caracas housing project. His father was lost to gun violence in the recent past — the presence of Junior’s newborn brother suggests his father died six to nine months ago. They hear gunfire echoing routinely at night. The film suggests that his father, like most of the young men in the film, had been pulled into gang battles. Junior and his mother each deal with the trauma of loss differently.

Samantha Castillo and Samuel Lange Zambrano (background) in Pelo Malo

The boy — played by Samuel Lange Zambrano — is only referred to as Junior, which traps him in a constant relationship with the missing “Senior.” Junior does much to take on the role his father might have. He takes care of his mother when she’s hungover and feeds his baby brother. But mostly, Junior retreats in to his own interests rather than running with the boys who play basketball, the boys following his father towards gangs and death. He is interested in music and dancing and most of all, having straight hair like his mother and like photos of pop singers — his hair is kinky like his dead father’s and that of his abuela. Is he trying to be feminine, or is he trying to escape turning from Junior into Senior?

Marta — played by Samantha Castillo — copes by becoming tougher, more stereotypically masculine. When the film opens, she is working as a housecleaner, but she wants to be a security guard. “What if I get shot?” she asks at a job interview. This confuses the interviewer. He’s hiring for a cleaner, not a security guard, so she leaves. The only way she can get on the security force is not through dedication and toughness, but by sleeping with the man in charge, named only as el jefe. But even in submitting to el jefe, Marta is being manipulative against Junior. Earlier, Marta expressed fear to the family doctor that Junior was becoming gay. The family doctor suggested Junior needed a male role model, needed to see positive examples of heteronormativity. So, she stages the tryst with el jefe in their apartment, in front of Junior. But this twisted example of heteronormativity where sex is the ticket to a good job, where the man does not care and bring home support but rather takes away dignity, only traumatizes Junior further. A final insult is the el jefe’s gift. His only contribution of value to the household is a goldfish trapped in a plastic bag, later seen trapped in an equally tiny pitcher of water. It’s as though the boss is saying, “here is a reminder that you’re in a cage and can’t escape.” Eventually, the kid frees the goldfish from its torture by dumping him out the window. The goldfish in its brief flight might be the only character with something resembling release in the film.

In his quest for straight hair and music and dance, Junior finds an ally in his abuela, but she too is using him. Having lost her son, she is worried about having no one to take care of her in old age. If she takes care of Junior and lets him sing and dance, she might earn his devotion. It’s an investment (earlier we see that she keeps books on Junior-related expenses to bill Marta for). The newborn will grow up to take care of Marta, she reasons, “one for you, one for me.” But abuela scares Junior off. The outfit she lovingly crafts for him is too feminine. “I’m not a girl!” he shouts. It is a perfect replica of the outfit singer Henry Stephen wears when he performs the song she teaches Junior, the song that runs through much of the film and through Junior’s mind:

The song is a catchy and has strange images: lemons, a lemon tree, a brunette, the reactions of an Englishman (yeah yeah yeah) and a Frenchman (ooh la la). Here is Google’s translation of the lyrics. I’m sure a native Spanish speaker would hear plenty of innuendo. Surely mi limon is a blond with “good hair” in contrast with the dark-haired morena in the lyrics. A rough Google translation of the lyrics gives us “lemons to drink / lemons to suck on.” Junior shouldn’t have to have his queerness deprogrammed, but if he’s going to be exposed to heterosexual modes of being, pop song lyrics are a safer parenting technique than the route Marta took.

But look again at Henry Stephen in that video. what are we to make of his pelo malo, which runs counter to Junior’s belief that singers have straight hair. Nelly Ramos, who plays Junior’s abuela, was a contemporary of Stephen in the ‘70s Venezuelan pop scene. Perhaps she’s trying to teach Junior that kinky hair is pelo bueno, but Junior doesn’t have the chance to finish his transformation into Stephen.

How does a story of poverty in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez tie in to my thoughts about the election and this moment in time? Venezuela is a favorite foil for Trump and Fox News. Democrats want to turn the U.S. into Venezuela, Fox pundits are fond of saying. But it is Trump who is bringing us closer to authoritarianism, acting like a dictator. He has repeatedly declined to acknowledge the possibility of a transfer of power and has disparaged the democratic process. Life under Trump’s regime looks more and more like a scene from Pelo Malo every day. Our failed approach to the pandemic and to diplomacy means we too are isolated from our English (yeah yeah yeah) and French (ooh la la) allies. The film’s final shot has Junior in school stone-faced while his classmates all chant an anthem about revolution, combat, and struggle instead of a joyful song about a lemon tree, and I thought of Trump’s recent pledge to impose “patriotic curriculum” on our schools. I’m hopeful we find a better resolution in 40 days than Junior or his goldfish.

Pelo Malo’ was the latest pick for Las Kikas Cine Club. Join us next month to discuss Paz Fábrega’s ‘Viaje’ from 2015.

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