Movie Review: Venezuela’s bid for an Oscar — “The Box (La Caja)”

The new film from award-winning Venezuelan filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas is a lean, quiet and disturbing parable about global capitalism as it is practiced in much of the Third World.

With “The Box” (“La Caja”), the director of “From Afar” pulls us into the sad, mysterious plight of a boy dispatched to the world of giant sweatshops and ruthlessly exploited workers of northern Mexico. And through this poker-faced child, we get a brutal taste of the grim cost of a system still stuck in a Darwinian Wild West era in much of the world.

Hatzín (Hatzín Navarrete) has been sent north by his grandmother to retrieve his father’s body. A bus deposits him at a site where trailers have been set up and officialdom is IDing corpses and turning over remains to next of kin in large, coffin-shaped urns.

We can see where the bodies have come from, and it’s too small and tidy a space for a plane or bus crash. What happened? Hatzín asks no questions, and seems strangely unmoved by the process.

“I’m not crying, grandma,” he tells her by phone (in Spanish with English subtitles). He is young, maybe 13, and apparently estranged from the man whose body is in “La Caja.”

Wandering through the nearby town, he spies a man he is sure is his dad, a man who shrugs off his insistence that he recognizes him. Mario (Hernán Mendoza) is bluff and bearded and patient enough to hear the kid out. There’s a flash of compassion as the boy comes back, still insisting, and Mario buys him a drink and offers him bus fare.

Nothing doing, the kid seems to think. “There’s been a mistake” he tells the forensics team at what we slowly figure out is a mass burial site. Hatzín will dump the box on them and make a pest of himself to this stranger, who indulges, then bristles at and finally takes him in.

Hatzín will discover an underworld of labor recruiting, Amazon warehouse-sized sewing factories and peasant labor coming from near and far for work in what one recruiter describes, over and over, as Mexico’s “war” “with the Chinese,” a war with opportunities for quick cash but sometimes deadly consequences, from deceitful exploitation to truck hijackings and worse.

Vigas and fellow screenwriters Paula Markovich and Laura Santullo limit the dialogue, pulling the viewer in, forcing us to plumb the mystery of this unnamed place much as Hatzin does.

We ponder the kid’s annoying persistence and why this burly stranger is so tolerant of it, until he isn’t.

We hear the pitches to workers, and like Hatzin, observe how the promises differ from reality. Some are smart enough to see they’re being exploited, and start speaking up to others.

And we’re immersed in Mario’s reality a former sewing factory worker who saw the real money was in working with middle men and small-sweatshop owner-operators, filling buses with poor people eager to work, unaware of the trap they’re signing up for.

“Be happy with what you have,” they’re counseled. But if they aren’t?

The kid’s journey will take him from “You’re too honest” into things he’d never think he was capable of. It’s like an initiation into the drug world saga, but with lower cash stakes and cheap, ready-to-wear fashions as its product.

Young Navarette doesn’t give away what Hatzin is thinking, which serves the layers that cover where the narrative is going but robs “The Box” of emotional power. The film can feel documentary-clinical as it lays out this world, this “system” and the gregarious Marios who run it.

Mendoza lets us see the older’s man’s kindly, then cunning sides, and wonder which tack he will finally take with this bright boy he’s brought into his trust.

And through them Vigas shows us what’s behind that Walmart T-shirt that lasts two or three washings, that Target dress that loses its color just as quickly, and the true cost of anything that seems cheap, but really isn’t.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Hatzín Navarrete and Hernán Mendoza

Credits: Directed by Lorenzo Vigas, scripted by Paula Markovich, Laura Santullo and Lorenzo Vigas. A MUBI release.

Running time: 1:33

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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