Netflixable? An architect and a street urchin, united in tragedy on Panama’s “Plaza Catedral”

The boy looks like any one of the hundreds of hustling teens on Panama City’s streets. His scam is using traffic cones to sell parking spots with implied “Be a shame if something happened to your nice car” “protection” in the bargain.

But Alicia, a 40ish Mexican architect, isn’t in the mood for a shake down. She ignores, argues with and then pays the kid under his asking price.

As she sits, smoking, on her balcony, she watches the boy who goes by “Chief.” And Chief watches her. When she leaves for work, selling pricey high-rise condos in tropical Panama’s ocean view building boom, he’s washed her Audi, unbidden. More arguing, more angry bickering and more under-paying.

It’s not until he shows up at her door, bloodied by a gunshot wound, that she’s truly forced to deal with Chief. And even after she’s scooped him up and spirited him to a hospital, she keeps her distance, ignoring pleas from nurses and guards for her name and the patient’s identity.

They don’t know she lives on “Plaza Catedral.” But he does. And when he escapes from the hospital, the homeless urchin named makes a beeline for her address. Like it or not, solitary, self-pitying Alicia has a new responsibility in her life.

Panamanian writer-director Abner Benaim’s debut drama — he’s made documentaries and a lone comedy before now — was Panama’s submission for Best International Feature film at the Oscars a couple of years back.

It’s a simple, downbeat tale built on familiar themes, with generally predictable story beats and plot points.

Yes, Alicia — played with a guarded, calloused fragility by Ilse Salas — has a secret pain. All those people asking how she’s doing, the friends dragging her out for drinks? She’s newly divorced. And as we quickly figure out, she used to have a son.

Of course one relates to the other.

Chief has a real name, “Alexis.” But he has no home. Calling a doctor she knows about how long it should take for him to recover only earns Alicia a lecture.

“The younger they are, the more dangerous they are,” he tells her (in Spanish with English subtitles).

But warning or not, even with nightmares about what he might do to her or her property, Alicia finds herself taking care of this uneducated, gang-affiliated street kid, played by real-life street teen Fernando Xavier De Casta.

There’s not a lot of street grit to this story, which is mostly told from Alicia’s entitled point-of-view. The burden Benaim faced making this was in finding something new to do with this situation, a new angle to attack this chronic Third World/Central and South American condition.

He doesn’t. Whatever Chief is mixed up in is bound to infiltrate Alicia’s life. Whatever his presence does for the sleepwalk of grief that is her daily existence is not guaranteed to be a change for the better.

Benaim has made a sharply-observed account of a Panamanian social ill as it impacts two people — one who lives it, the other who “sees” it for the first time. The problem is he doesn’t observe enough that’s new and doesn’t do anything novel with this familiar set-up.

A glimpse of crowded, cosmopolitan Panama and the people left behind in its tax haven/vacation-get-away building boom is all we get. A glimpse is no longer enough.

Rating: unrated, violence, alcohol abuse, smoking, profanity

Cast: Ilse Salas, Fernando Xavier De Casta and Manolo Cardona

Credits: Scripted and directed by Abner Benaim. A Samuel Goldwyn release on Netflix.

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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