Indispensable to any stimulating storyline, characterization is a powerful tool for any film. When a plot is considered too simple or unsubstantial to its structure, a well-crafted character can earn attention and make a film worthwhile. Whether it’s a middle aged loner finding her place in social relationships (Mary from Mike Leigh’s Another Year), or a failing couple fighting against life’s mediocrities (Dean and Cindy from Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine), or a man-child struggling to accept his mother’s new boyfriend (Cyrus from Duplass brother’s Cyrus), a strong character can essentially make a small film huge. Thus is the case for Luisa, a heroin addict seeking repose in a remote beach alongside strangers with problems of their own, in director Yulene Olaizola’s sophomore outing Artificial Paradises (Paraisos Artificiales).
Artificial Paradises follows Luisa as she attempts to rid her ugly habit on the beautiful seaside hills of Veracruz Mexico, where she builds relationships with the locals including Salomon, a 50 year old drunk widower who spends much of his time smoking marijuana. What appears to be a haven for an addict to quickly get over her taste for heroin quickly becomes her hell. From the get-go, the juxtaposition between cinematography and character behavior plays a predominant force to the film’s conflict. The lush greenery of Veracruz’s rainforest, the rocky ruins, the crashing waves, all beautiful as they are, are unappreciated to this junkie, who spends her time in a small room. Instead of soaking in the beauty, she wastes her heroin supply quickly and nervously breaks down as it dwindles. Between this battle of scenic artistry and character torment, characterization reigns due to the sincerity of actress Luisa Pardo, who skillfully wins the audience over to willingly fight withdrawal alongside her. We sense her compassion as she embraces the children of the beach, we laugh as we see her friendly relationship with Salomon (Salomón Hernández) bloom, and we ache when she aches. The plot is simple, the conflict is humanistic, and the constant question recurring in our minds is, “Will SHE make it?” Without Luisa there is no film, and at a mere 83 minutes, you’ll want more of her. Much more.
With a strong character piece, come other intriguing characters. As we struggle with Luisa, we learn that she is not alone. Salomon is lax and indifferent to the people around him. What Luisa lacks in connection with the land, Salomon appears to be its slave as he endlessly maintains the earth and grass around his bungalow. One would think that with his devotion and duration at the beach would bring about a wisdom that is advantageous to Luisa and her determination to overcome her addiction. We soon find out that the opposite is true: Salomon’s grasp on his own future is as doubtful as Luisa’s. What we come to get is a tale of the blind leading the blind, which is endearing and yet inevitably troublesome for Luisa’s cause. We want Salomon to help, but given his nature, one knows it just isn’t so.
Ultimately, we are uncertain of Luisa’s future as the film cuts off rather abruptly. We are forced to make our own conclusions. We are forced to beg for more Luisa, more answers, and practically more of everything the film has to offer. One may argue that if a film can pull this off, then it’s a compliment. And in a way it is for Yulene Olaizola and Artificial Paradises. By allowing the audience to conclude a character’s destiny, it only makes the audience’s connection to a character that much stronger. When Butch and Sundance run toward the Bolivian army as the ending freeze frames, we choose whether or not they live (George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). When Randy “The Ram” leaps off the ropes as the film fades to black, we hope he lives another day or dies with some sort of fulfillment (Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler). The same is true for Artificial Paradises, as we hope Luisa will make the right decision and survive, but unfortunately the connection comes about on a lesser scale. By cutting the film short, it rides the line of hypothetical play for the audience and not knowing how to end it. What makes films like Butch Cassidy and The Wrestler stronger and flat out better, is the fact that they support strong characterization while developing a strong story for the characters to live through. Unfortunately for Artifical Paradises, it only scores half the points but shows promise for director Oliazola. If she can create a piece like this with 83 minutes and a couple of interesting characters, one can only imagine what she can do with 120 minutes and a compelling story.
Artificial Paradises premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday April 22. Please visit www.tribecafilm.com for more details.