It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month and many streaming services are celebrating by highlighting the many projects that feature and are directed and written by Latinos. One of this year’s most talked about international films, Cadejo Blanco, comes from Guatemala. Roughly translated, the title means a mythical beast found in Central and South America — a white spirit dog. The film has a good leading actor, but the message gets muddled as other characters fail to bring the energy needed in their roles to make this film truly stand out.
Up-and-coming film director Justin Lerner has received awards such as Audience Award Winner at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and Best Director at the White Sands International Film Festival. He brings this same level of depth to his new project, Cadejo Blanco. Lerner gives painstaking attention to detail in every shot that features his star, Karen Martinez. The final product of Lerner’s labor is a female-driven crime drama that is filled with suspense and even a touch of mystery.
Set in the small town of Puerto Barrios, Sarita (Karen Martinez) attempts to infiltrate a local, dangerous gang of young men and women. She risks everything to locate and track down the people she believes were involved in the disappearance of her sister, Bea (Pamela Martinez). The only lead she has is the sister’s terrifying and slightly off-putting ex-boyfriend Andrés (Rudy Rodriguez). While attempting to convince the gang of her sincerity, she slowly develops her persona to become more involved in the gang’s inner workings until she ultimately learns the truth about the whereabouts of her sister.
The Guatemala-born Karen Martinez really makes this film come alive. Her Sarita is nothing but outstanding. In the scenes where she is interacting with her sister, you can feel true chemistry. When they are getting ready to go to the club and they get dressed and put on makeup together, the scene has a realistic tone that is unmatched by other duets of characters. When the scene calls for an emotional reaction or even a bit of humor, it does not go unfelt.
One spectacular aspect of the film is where Sarita confronts her boyfriend and asks him to lie to her family if they call him. To get him to comply with her demands, she blackmails him by threatening to reveal something deeply personal to him. This threat adds to her personality. Sarita is truthful and relentless when it comes to discovering what she needs.
The mise-en-scène and setting also help to bring out the important qualities of the film. From the size of the rooms to the appearance of the neighborhood, this film goes to great lengths to preserve authenticity. Sarita’s desire to find out the truth about her sister is the motivation that this film thrives on. She escapes death at every corner and journeys into a world she has little-to-no knowledge about. The role requires fear and a survival mentality, and Karen Martinez does not disappoint.
Karen Martinez plays her role with more believability than her co-star, performer Rodriguez, who fails to match her in every way. His character, Andrés, is a young man caught between two worlds: the one he wants to live in, a beautiful one where his choices are his own, and the world he was thrust into for social and economic reasons. He is forced to evaluate his choices, but these moments of brilliance are short-lived. He fails to deliver the emotional impact that the scenes require to really land with the audience. He, at first glance, does have a resemblance to what a gang member would look like, with his tatted arm and stern demeanor, but unfortunately, that is where the credibility ends for his portrayal.
The uneven acting of these two unlikely characters does not come from the writing but perhaps the experience each actor has. Karen Martinez, from her previous work, had earned a Best Actress nomination in 2014 from Premios Fenix, Cinema Writers Circle Awards, and the Platino Awards for Iberoamerican Cinema. With so much behind her in her early career, it is understandable why a scene shared with her feels more one-sided than it should.
Andrés does have a saving grace within the film. When he is confronted with the reality of who Sarita really is, he steps up. Andrés, knowing the reality of the world he is a part of, performs one act of kindness for Sarita that goes against his boss played by Rudy Urrutia. Andrés’s action helps make him feel like the person he wants to be — the person he should have been. The gang leader plays a horrific character, and he does it well. He is the character everyone roots against for how awful of a person he is. In the end, everyone loves a good villain, so he plays his character well, even if he is unlikeable.
The narrative and cinematography both show a lot of promise, but having one star carry the weight of the whole film makes it hard to truly grasp the complexity of the film in the first watch. The supporting roles of the gang leader and Bea truly do a lot to fill out the world, but it’s just not enough to drive the message of the film home.
Though fictional, the film is a fantastic portrayal of many stories represented by many who leave their country to come to another. These stories are not new to this writer but are interesting to watch on screen.
The Guadalajara Film Festival (FICG36) runs from October 1–9.
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Donnie Lopez is a gay Latino/Hispanic social and political commentator, writer, entertainment journalist, and professor. He writes on topics that affect Hispanic/Latino culture. With his novel insight, veracity, and sense of humor, he entertains as well as educates the world.