Review: La Fortaleza
by Kaleem Aftab
- Jorge Thielen Armand mines his father’s past, as well as his acting chops, for this beguiling Venezuelan jungle drama
Venezuelan auteur Jorge Thielen Armand's first film was the acclaimed festival hit La Soledad, which premiered at the 73rd Venice Film Festival in 2016. His father, Jorge "Roque" Thielen, had a small role in that picture, but he now takes centre stage in Armand's sophomore film, La Fortaleza [+see also:
film profile], playing in the Tiger Competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Thielen plays Roque, a character inspired by his own life. In the 1990s, Thielen built a tourist lodge in the Amazon with the help of the Pemón tribe. Director Armand and his mother left Venezuela when he was 15. The reason why this becomes pertinent is that La Fortaleza mixes fact with fiction, and these biographical details become part of the narrative.
In the film, middle-aged Roque walks away from a car crash with a blood-stained shirt, looking like he's been on the receiving end of a pummelling from three-weight champion Jorge Linares. Roque heads to his parental home in Caracas, claiming to have been mugged. Surely his mum is going to give him some sympathy? But when his mother looks at her son with disdain and blames his troubles on his drinking and partying ways, then kicks him out of the house, it smartly establishes a whole dark past. Armand has tremendous efficiency in his storytelling style, which allows him to concentrate on the character study, rather than impose a plot.
From this electric opening, the feature moves at a more relaxed pace when Roque returns to the Amazon, thinking that's where he's going to sober up and change his life, away from the economic turmoil and mayhem of Caracas. Seeing Roque boating along the river, living in nature, but having his head turned by the prospect of a fast buck, is reminiscent of some of the great characters portrayed by Klaus Kinski in classic Werner Herzog yarns. Like Herzog, Armand also believes in authentic casting and makes use of non-professionals inhabiting roles with which they are familiar. Playing Roque's best friend is Yoni Naranjo, a Pemón fisherman who has been friends with Armand’s dad for 20 years. Roque tells Yoni that his son is a film director living abroad who wants to make a movie based on him, to which Yoni replies that he wants to be in it, as long as the money is good. The acting is low-key and interior, and Armand wisely chooses to keep things opaque, so as not to put too many demands on his performers. In return, they've delivered some beguiling characters.
The spectre of Hugo Chávez hangs over this picture. A graffitied image of the late Venezuelan leader is on a wall, in front of a running crowd. Although the movie was made after his death, Chávez continues to define the present. Through the complicated Roque, Armand, who also has a small cameo, tries to decipher the puzzle that is Venezuela, where no road seems to lead to glory.
La Fortaleza is a Venezuelan-French-Dutch-Colombian co-production staged by La Faena Films, in co-production with Mutokino, In Vivo Films and Viking Film, and in collaboration with Ardimages UK and Genuino Films.
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