In the superb opening sequence of Abner Benaim’s Plaza Catedral, we see a vertical tracking shot of an unfinished skyscraper while a melancholic female voice talks about the expectations people have of her life and attitude in the aftermath of a tragedy. She recounts the ‘advice’ given to her, stuff like “Time heals all wounds” and “Life goes on” that rings hollow in her ears. This is the voice of Alicia (Ilse Salas), a wealthy Mexican saleswoman working and living in Panama who, ever since the death of her 6-year-old in a freak accident, has lived on autopilot.
Alicia tries to have a normal life. She goes to judo lessons, shares a drink with her boss (played by Benaim), hooks up with a man in a bar, and tries to sell unfinished skyscrapers to strangers. But her eyes seem empty. She isn’t even capable of enjoying sex. Her ex-husband Diego (Manolo Cardona) blames her for the loss of their child which only creates a bigger burden on her soul.
This all changes when Chief (Fernando Xavier de Casta), the annoying little street kid who watches over cars outside her home, shows up at her doorstep, wounded and bloodied. Even though Alicia drops him at a hospital, Chief returns to her asking for help, afraid of being arrested. A reluctant Alicia takes him in and takes care of his wounds, eventually creating a bond that allows her to withdraw from her cocoon of grief.
For over a decade, Ilse Salas has been doing outstanding work in México pairing up with filmmakers such as Alonso Ruizpalacios (Museo, Güeros) and Alejandra Márquez Abella (Las niñas bien), but her performance in Plaza Catedral might be her best yet. She communicates the aching pain of loss with heartbreaking nuance; Salas uses her eyes and facial expressions to create emotion without ever stepping into melodramatic territory. Her dynamic with young De Casta is terrific
Aiding Salas’ desolation is director of photography Lorenzo Hagerman who provides a cold and grounded atmosphere to maximize feelings of isolation. The white walls and big empty spaces of Alicia’s house are used to achieve this effect too.
The other piece of the puzzle is young De Casta, who plays Chief with honesty, bravado, and vulnerability. His dynamic with Salas is terrific and the scene in which they share each other’s life stories creates a highly emotional moment as well as a showcase of masterful acting.
Plaza Catedral doesn’t work as well when Abner Benaim’s script intertwines the theme of grief with that of street violence. After Alicia goes to the sums to check on Chief, a rushed subplot of family abuse erupts, eventually leading to an abrupt yet shocking finale whose significance was exponentially increased by the hand of cruel reality. Before the film’s premiere at the 2021 Guadalajara Film Festival, young Fernando Xavier de Casta was murdered in the streets of Panamá. He was awarded the Best Actor award at the festival, a posthumous honor to a brilliant performance that filled the screened with promise.
Abner Bernaim delivers a skillful drama that doesn’t offer easy answers nor does it go for a conventional third act. It does a fantastic job of portraying how loss can make a soul numb to the world around it and offers a glimpse into the bleak reality that countless children face in the streets, a place where they become just a statistic; it’s a reality that unavoidably gave more complexity to the entirety of Plaza Catedral. We can only hope that the tragic death of De Casta doesn’t become a statistic, but a spark for conversation and change.
Plaza Catedral was Panama’s Oscar submission and is one of the fifteen shortlisted titles in the 2022 Best International Feature Oscar race.
- Rating - 7/107/10
Abner Bernaim delivers a skillful drama that doesn’t offer easy answers nor does it go for a conventional third act. It does a fantastic job of portraying how loss can make a soul numb to the world around it and offers a glimpse into the bleak reality that countless children face in the streets, a place where they become just a statistic; it’s a reality that unavoidably gave more complexity to the entirety of Plaza Catedral.