The odd couplings are soon overshadowed by stranger goings-on about town: Felipa's sailor lover dies at sea, and rumors spread that the schoolteacher caused his death by casting a spell on him in revenge for his philandering. She is further disgraced when her relationship with Eliseo is discovered, and she leaves town with the still-enamored school principal, who marries her. Then a friend of Eliseo who spread the rumors about Felipa becomes possessed -- or gets rabies -- after being bitten by a dog, and he is shot after biting someone else. Finally Eliseo's father is crippled in an "accident" when he denounces the town's corrupt mayor and attempts to improve conditions for the dockworkers.

Flash-forward to a grown Eliseo (played by hunky Mario Zaragoza with an air of defeated chagrin), now an illiterate, drunk dockworker married to the daughter of a protective family. But he appears forever jinxed: When his father dies, Eliseo's position on the docks is revoked by the vengeful mayor. Meanwhile Felipa returns to town after her husband dies, with plans to open a seaside bar. Eliseo blames her for his fate, and their confrontation leads to the film's burning conclusion.

This epic narrative (in Spanish with English subtitles) is at times awkward and ultimately a little tiring, yet much beauty can be found in the details: old men on the docks with maps of a hard life etched into their wrinkled faces; fishnet patterns of rope hammocks suspended in a dirt-floored bedroom; the hopeful, tattered performers in a shabby traveling circus; a basketful of fried fish. These are telling images of a time and place, aesthetically spellbinding.

Ultimately, though, Carrera, who co-wrote the screenplay with Martin Salinas, wants us to think about how the hard realities of these people's lives are relieved (or antagonized) by their religious faith. That task would be easier, and Under a Spell considerably more effective, if the beliefs of the Yucatan people had been better explained. Carrera merely suggests the presence of the supernatural, leaving it to the viewer to draw his own conclusions about what is real and what is imagined. (Monday, February 22, 9:30 p.m.)

-- Judy Cantor

The four friends at the center of the smart 1998 Venezuelan social satire Little Thieves, Big Thieves (Cien Anos de Perdon) recall the motley group of male strippers in the British sleeper The Full Monty (1997). Like the underdogs of that film, the foursome in Thieves is composed of desperate victims of a depressed economy. But the get-rich-quick scheme they devise involves risking their butts, not just showing them.

The film is set during the very real 1994 Venezuelan bank scandal, when the nation's financial institutions were bushwhacked by embezzling officials. The corruption was so widespread that eighteen commercial banks were closed or seized by the government, a fiasco that cost Venezuelan taxpayers $11 billion. (Many of the former bankers remain at large.) Like other middle-class Venezuelans, Horacio, Valmore, Rogelio, and Vicente struggle to keep afloat in a crime-ridden Caracas, where the dollar rules over worthless Venezuelan currency. It's the week before Christmas, and Valmore, a high school history teacher, has hit a new low: His car has been stolen, he has no insurance, and on his salary he won't even be able to afford a bike. The other three men find themselves in similarly dire circumstances.

Horacio, who has been fired from his job at a major bank, comes up with an idea. "Those scumbags from the bank are enjoying other people's money," he tells his friends. "Don't they deserve a little shit from us?" Having discovered that his former employer is the next bank to be taken over by the government, Horacio hatches a plan: The four will pose as inspectors and demand to examine the bank's books; once they have infiltrated the bank's computer system they will siphon money into an offshore account they have set up.

Not surprisingly the heist goes awry, but it would be a crime to reveal the turn of events in detail here. The upshot is that the men become unwitting whistleblowers on corruption that reaches beyond the banking industry all the way up to the government. The would-be bank robbers are celebrated as heroes by the bank employees and customers they take as hostages, while a crowd of citizens that gathers outside to "denounce the embezzlement of a nation" cheers them on.

Like the salsa song that opens the film, Little Thieves, Big Thieves (in Spanish with English subtitles) moves along snappily, with the players never missing a beat. Fine ensemble acting by the leads (Orlando Urdaneta, Daniel Lugo, Aroldo Betancourt, and Mariano Alvarez) makes real the relationships between the four long-time buddies, and they're aided by a supporting cast that convincingly depicts a slice of Venezuelan life.

Born in Buenos Aires, director Alejandro Saderman has lived in Venezuela since 1977. Commissioned by the United Nations, he made The Time Bomb (1986), a documentary about Latin America's foreign debt. His knowledge of current affairs is evident in Little Thieves, Big Thieves, his second feature, which ultimately comes across as light, but hardly lightweight. Its gritty production values and succinct social commentary sometimes recall the biting, dark, early-Eighties comedies of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. (Sunday, February 21, 2:00 p.m.)

-- Judy Cantor

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