LAFF Review: '7 Boxes'

7 Boxes (7 Cajas)
(Paraguay, 105 min.)
Dir. Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori, Writ. Juan Carlos Maneglia
Starring: Celso Franco, Víctor Sosa, Lali González, Nico García, Paletita, Nelly Dávalos.
It’s an appropriately hot Friday in Asunción, Paraguay. The tin roofs of the city’s hectic market shade its dwellers from the stifling sun. They also mask the dark goings-on that fuel the city’s shady underworld. 7 Boxes, a riveting thriller from feature debut directors Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori, throws us into the heart of gangland Paraguay as we watch one boy navigate the stalls to escape with his life. 7 Boxes is so electrifying that it’s bound to leave viewers sweating in their seats.

Running hustle-bustle through the crowded stalls is seventeen-year-old Víctor (played by impressive newcomer Celso Franco). Víctor is a street-smart youth, but he is still a little too young, idealistic, and naïve to appreciate fully the seediness of the underworld he inhabits. He’s an errand boy who dreams of playing the lead. Víctor begins his chaotic whirlwind to stardom when he accepts an innocuous task from a marketplace butcher: he is to transport seven sealed boxes on his wheelbarrow and deliver them to a location that will be revealed via a cell phone call that he will receive during the journey. The role seems simple enough and it offers a Hollywood paycheck of an American hundred-dollar bill. The amount is incalculable in the local denomination for Víctor, yet he grasps that the piece of paper is a passport to escape.

The seedy butcher tears the bill in two, offering Víctor the standard deal of “half now, half later.” Víctor, like a keen apprentice, tears through the stalls, weaving around cops and baddies alike so that he can tape Benjamin Franklin back together and buy himself a cellphone that captures video. With this phone, offered to him in desperate pitch by his sister’s pregnant co-worker, Víctor can be like the stars he idealizes on the televisions scattered around the market.

As Víctor darts around the market stalls in a run for his life, 7 Boxes crosscuts Víctor’s story with a handful of other narratives that intersect with his own. His sister, Tamara (Nelly Dávalos), accompanies her friend to the hospital, and the trip to the ER leads her into seedier depths of the underworld that foreshadow the dark hole into which Víctor is heading. At the same time, a marketplace thug (Paletita) hears that Víctor’s parcels contain bundles of money. As the night wears on, Víctor becomes the target of the market’s bottom-feeders. By becoming the victim, Víctor can play the role of hero as he evades the baddies and carries the cargo to a noble finish.
What the boxes contain, however, is a mystery familiar to the boy’s cinematic fantasies. The seven sealed boxes aren’t quite the McGuffin of, say, the golden briefcase in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Instead, Maneglia and Schémbori allow Víctor to cart a highly symbolic plot vehicle around the marketplace, and reveal the contents of the box at just the right moment. 7 Boxes pulls the lids off Víctor’s packages to expose its characters’ pursuit of a foul rotten corpse. All roads in the black market seem to lead to death.

Maneglia and Schémbori build an engaging, pulse-pounding thriller that seems finely attune to the intricacies of its sociological setting. Beating to the lively pace of the music by Fran Villalba, the life of the market is a breathless life force. It's a death trap for some and a means of survival for others. The cinematography by Richard Careaga captures the action with a fine eye for what goes in underneath the fluorescent light and shadows. Although 7 Boxes is a rare cinematic offering from Paraguay, it offers not a tourist’s gaze of the city. Rarely does the action step outside the cover of the marketplace, and when it does, 7 Boxes takes the road of back alleys and hidden corners, rather than tidy streets and postcard-perfect settings.

The stories of 7 Boxes converge in an explosive and violent finale. The editing by Juan Sebastián Zelada and Juan Carlos Maneglia enjoys a life of its own as it interlaces the various storylines of 7 Boxes with a feverish tempo. The film has the pulse and energy of a busy marketplace and the full-throttle tempo of a great thriller. If the conclusion wraps up the film a bit too conveniently, however, 7 Boxes ends by finding a spark of hope in the sprawling consequences of Víctor’s endeavour.

The poverty of Víctor and his peers brings a different set of rules and moral codes to the marketplace. 7 Boxes likewise brings something unconventional to the action genre. The film is a bare-bones look at life in a city-within-a-city, yet the sociological character of the film only makes the exhilarating action more engrossing. This richness results in something as great as City of God meets Run Lola Run, but it really feels like some phenomenon we haven't seen before. 7 Boxes is undoubtedly one of the most exciting world cinema discoveries you will find this year. I hope that it hints at more to come from these talented filmmakers from Paraguay.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

7 Boxes screens in Ottawa as the closing selection of the Canadian Film Institute’s
Latin American Film Festival.
It plays Sunday, April 7th at 4:00pm at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St.

UPDATE: 7 Boxes opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on March 21.