MIFF Review: Mateo

Soft guitar chords and a view of calm waters against pale-green land instantly set the tone of Mateo. In a small town near the Magdalena River in Colombia, screenwriters Adriana Arjona and Maria Gamboa depict the world's oldest struggle — good versus evil — in what can be best described as visual poetry. Despite the film's sluggish speed, it lends itself well to the content, and the effortless performances make it worthwhile. The titular character, Mateo, played by Carlos Hernandez, works as a collector for his uncle's illegal loan shark business. As a vibrant and athletic 16-year-old boy, working for his uncle makes him pretty good money but doesn't help much with his grades. To remain in school, Mateo is forced to join a theater group led by the local priest. Taking advantage of Mateo's new ties, his uncle uses his nephew as a spy to gain information about the priest and his followers. Once Mateo joins the theater group, his character begins to develop. His strongest arc occurs in the middle of a group exercise as his arms are outstretched and he's being held aloft by his new friends. In that moment, he is truly free. As the film progresses, Mateo's internal struggles begin to dominate, and in the end, he is forced to make a life-altering choice. The film ends with a sad yet touching message: "Many communities in the middle Magdalena region have worked for a lasting peace, fighting for human dignity and respect for life above all. This film was inspired by the people in these communities and is dedicated to them." Arjona and Gamboa tread lightly on various themes, such as family ties, loyalty, friendship, and the power and influence of love. Yet, overall, the film's strongest element is the powerful performance by Hernandez as Mateo.

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