by Mike Dub
Paraguayan films rarely make the long trip up to the States, which is one of the reasons that 7 Boxes, which opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, is such a fun movie to discover. Directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori, the film seems a logical representative to try to distribute to North America. While it can be appreciated as a fun, lively chase movie, it also offers a glimpse, however narrow and stylized, into the world of modern Paraguay, in which the filmmakers lament Paraguay’s capitulation to a westernized consumerist and cultural globalization.
Even if its effort is slightly more laudable than its end result, 7 Boxes is a gritty, entertaining chase movie. The story concerns Victor (Celso Franco), a poor teenager who desperately wants a cellphone with a video camera. Enraptured by television, he wants to record himself, which is his idea of what it means to be a star. He has seen enough American movies and Idols to be lured by the promise of fame and fortune.
He doesn’t have enough money to buy a camera phone, so he accepts a small-time gangster’s dubious proposal: if Victor takes care of seven boxes for him (while the police search his business) and return them in tact, he will give Victor one hundred U.S. dollars, more than enough to buy the phone. He spends the rest of the film running and hiding from an assortment of characters, including a rival and his gang, the police, his fifteen-year-old love interest, and eventually the gangster himself.
With a refreshingly low-tech visual style, cinematographer Richard Careaga brings to life the poor, cluttered maze of an urban marketplace. There is virtually no CGI affectation to clutter the beauty of his shots or the tension they create. Careaga creates a clever visual palette that is nearly always interesting to watch, whether it involves placing the camera on a wheelbarrow during a chase or using silhouette to provide rare moments of dreamlike peace inside the nightmare of chaos surrounding the characters.
Energetic as it is, the film never quite breaks through the inevitability of its narrative. There is a textbook structure to the film that becomes more of a predictable rhythm. Characters enter and re-enter the story with mathematical precision, as though an egg timer were going off to remind us that they still exist. Plotlines intersect not through organic development, but because they are required to do so in order to advance the story, which builds to an inexorable, Tarantino-style climactic showdown. That is not to say the movie is hackneyed, but merely less than what it might have been.
Still, with its striking visual style and low-budget authenticity, 7 Boxes says more about resisting consumerist hegemony by virtue of its existence than it does in its final “message.” The film is an invigorating reminder that in order to make an effective action movie, you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars or a cast overflowing with Hollywood stars. More often than not, ambition is worth a hell of a lot more.