Tigers Are Not Afraid

For almost half a century, the United States Government has been fighting a largely fruitless ‘war on drugs’. Though the war has left countless victims in its wake and caused enduring damage to civil liberties, the Mexican government chose to declare its own anti-drug war in 2006 – one fought by the Mexican Army, with American dollars – which has since resulted in the death or disappearance of approximately 200,000 civilians.

This war has also left survivors behind – including, of course, the orphaned children of the dead and disappeared. Writer-director Issa López’s magnificent magical realist fable, Vuelven (Tigers Are Not Afraid, opening at San Francisco’s Alamo Drafthouse on Friday, September 6), examines the travails of five children left to their own devices in the slums of Mexico City.

Ten-year old Estrella (Paola Lara) is a schoolgirl living in a dangerous neighborhood where gunshots are a regular occurrence. When a particularly heavy fusillade results in the indefinite suspension of classes, Estrella is sent home only to find that her mother has gone missing, apparently the latest victim of the Huascas, the gang controlling the neighborhood drug trade.

Soon desperate for food, Estrella leaves home and stumbles into the den of four orphan boys led by hardened youngster El Shine (Juan Ramón López). An accomplished graffiti artist whose signature is a ferocious tiger, Shine has recently stolen a phone and a gun from Caco (Ianis Geurrero), a Huasca member caught with his pants down after a late night drinking binge.

Guns are a dime a dozen, but the phone contains evidence of torture and murder committed by the Huasca’s preferred political candidate, and the gang will go to any lengths to recover it. Knowing they’re in great danger, Estrella and the boys – including tiny Morro (adorable Nery Arredondo) and his stuffed tiger – flee to an abandoned mansion, where they hope to hide until things blow over.

Though López laces her film with supernatural imagery and surreal depictions of indoor fish ponds, burning pianos, and other indicia of the irreal, Tigers Are Not Afraid is far from a traditional horror film. Perhaps best compared to last year’s astonishing Brazilian masterpiece Good Manners, this is one of the cinematic highlights of the year. Though no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled, it’s well worth a trip across the Bridge.

Becoming Nobody

Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert in 1931) seems like a fun guy. Compared to many spiritual leaders, he’s good at larding his weighty prognostications on ego and mortality with self-deprecating humor and a brilliant grin.

Becoming Nobody (opening on Friday at Rialto Cinemas’ Elmwood) is a heartfelt paean to this psychedelic sage, now living a quiet but apparently contented life in Hawaii. Believers will love it, while those of us of other (or no) spiritual persuasion will be entertained and baffled in equal measure: while Ram Dass has some interesting things to say about corporeality and death, his philosophy seems a bit too comfortably middle-class in its suggestion that we should all Be Here Now and accept our respective moments. I’m probably missing the point.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...