Writer-director Fabián Hernández’s miserablist slice-of-life drama A Male concerns Carlos (Dylan Felipe Ramírez Espitia), a young teenager navigating the mean streets of Bogotá, Colombia. Left to fend for himself after his mother’s incarceration, Carlos lives in a shelter with dozens of other men, desperately trying to survive a seemingly hopeless existence where the threat of violence lingers on every street corner. Carlos has taken up with a local gang in an effort to secure a little money and maintain some semblance of safety, an effort that seems borderline futile in the face of such hardships. But A Male is not merely about the devastating effects of social and economic status. As the film opens, various talking heads speak directly to the camera, discussing what it means to be a man in such a harsh environment. Street cred is important above all else, the appearance of toughness superseding emotional honesty or even a hint of kindness. Carlos has taken such advice to heart, frequently adorned in various sports jerseys and giving off a palpable IDGAF attitude that belies the childish core that still exists within him. In this way, A Male becomes a portrait of contrasts: Carlos is a boy desperately trying to be seen as a man, even at the cost of his own humanity. He’s seen engaging in as many fights as he is shedding tears, unable to meaningfully come to terms with the situation in which he finds himself.
But there’s another main character in Hernández’s film, and that’s Bogotá: there’s an authenticity to the portrait of the city here, one that seems to be as much in transition as Carlos himself. Various cranes and diggers dot the landscape, scraping away the abandoned buildings and slums that decorate the view. Resembling a war zone more than a place to call home, Hernández realizes Bogotá as both the figurative and literal hell that Carlos is forced to navigate. Unfortunately, that same fine-tuned specificity does not extend to the film’s characterization of Carlos, a boy defined only by his endless sufferings and a checklist of indie film clichés. It’s clear that such a move was intentional on the director’s part in an effort to lend his protagonist a certain universality, but it’s a move that robs the film of a three-dimensional lead. It doesn’t help that the film’s dissection of gender roles is so reductive as to be borderline insulting, with Carlos possibly questioning his sexuality because… topicality? Espitia is practically androgynous in appearance, his full lips and lush eyelashes in contrast with his scarred face and severe, high-and-tight fade. At one point he is seen with a prostitute and begs her to tell his friends he performed like a champ even though he assures her nothing is likely to happen; later, he smears some lipstick on a mirror and stands in front of it, admiring the feminized reflection. But nothing about these particular plot details feel the least bit organic, simply existing to add another layer of cheap irony to the proceedings, as if the Christmas-time setting wasn’t ham-fisted enough. Meanwhile, Hernández can’t help but indulge in any number of visual tics that border on indie filmmaking parody at this point, from the camera continuously stalking our protagonist from behind to the never-ending long takes that all but scream realism. It’s largely impossible not to have your empathy stoked while watching A Male, but the lingering impression is that individuals like Carlos — and the dire situations in which they find themselves — deserve more than something this simplistic and shopworn.
DIRECTOR: Fabián Hernández; CAST: Dylan Felipe Ramírez Espitia, Jonathan Steven Rodriguez, Juanita Carrillo Ortiz; DISTRIBUTOR: ddd; IN THEATERS: December 8; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 22 min.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.