‘Pelo Malo’ Movie Review – puts a moving allegory for tolerance in front of a gorgeous slum backdrop

PeloMalo_poster Pelo Malo
Written and directed by Mariana Rondon
Venezuela/Peru/Argentina/Germany, 2013

The very worst thing about homophobia is that, because gender and sexuality are as much social constructs as biology, it can target anyone without the slightest shred of reason or truth. If you tolerate it aimed at someone else, the next target could be you. Such is the problem that Junior (Samuel Lange) faces in the Venezuelan import Pelo Malo.

At the beginning of the film, without any real cause or motivation, he is obsessed with straighting the unruly hair he inherited from his African-descended father. He would like to be a singer, and all of the singers on TV have straight hair. There are bigger problems all around him in the massive slums of Caracas, but all he can think about is “pelo malo” (literally, “bad hair”). The homophobia comes from his family, especially his mother Marta (Samantha Castillo), who looks at his antics and can only see the stereotype of an effeminate pop star.

The cast in Pelo Malo is uniformly great, but Castillo deserves the most credit, because she’s playing a monstrous character and committing completely. She’s struggling to regain her recently lost job, stuck raising Junior and his infant sister on her own in a slum where gunshots in the distance are a typical occurrence, but Castillo never plays the role it such a way that those issues become excuses. Instead, she emphasizes Marta’s cluelessness, driving home the point that she has no idea how to raise a young boy and is in terrible fear of his impending adolescence and sexual awakening. As so often happens, her fear and cluelessness become bigotry.

And then, of course, there is the issue that Junior might not even be gay. He might just be a kid who likes singing and dancing, as most kids do. He may not be old enough to know anything about his sexuality. His mother and grandmother are projecting their own fears and stereotypes of gayness upon him in the same way that a schoolyard bully might do. Writer/director Mariana Rendon has painted such a vivid picture of how bigotry can target people without reason, she doesn’t even point out that equating “nappy” hair with “bad” hair is an ugly racial stereotype. She hits every note she needs to about intolerance without even going there.

PeloMalo_featuredTo aid her allegory, Rondon drenches the film in symbolism, and none of it is especially subtle. In the first scene, Junior and a neighbor girl stare across the square to another housing project and guess about the people that they see, based purely on their superficial impressions, making some obvious parallels to what we’ll see from Marta later on. Marta’s employment is as a security guard; that she is not accepted as a woman, as a result of many of the same caricatures of masculinity that cause her to reject her son, makes for thick irony.

On top of all of the heavy allegory and metaphor in this film, it looks fantastic. Never has any slum been portrayed as beautifully as Caracas’s worst neighborhoods look here, with the housing projects looming like mountains and glowing in the evening sunsets. Gorgeous cinematography isn’t a requirement to sell a story as powerful and meaningful as Pelo Malo, but it doesn’t hurt.

— Mark Young

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