Ecuador's submission to the International Feature award for this year's Oscars is quite a film. Writer-director Gabriela Calvache's La Mala Noche (The Longest Night) is a drama that pierces you from the start, giving you less than ample time to breathe and get comfortable.
Calvache's film, which won Best International Film at the New York Latino Film Festival, tackles the subjects of sex and child trafficking, prostitution, illness, drug abuse and addiction, and suicide all in the span of an hour and 35 minutes. We see these issues through the eyes of Dana (Noëlle Schönwald), a sex worker who is indebted to a trafficking kingpin named Nelson (Jaime Tamariz) and starts a romantic-ish relationship with a doctor named Julián (Cristian Mercado). Unfortunately, that's the best one-sentence summary out there, yet it hardly scratches the surface of the intensity of the film.
Dana's life continues to crumble, as Nelson picks up a small girl at the beach, confining her to his compound as she grows increasingly sad and distraught. Calvache spends minutes just focusing in on the little girl, forcing the audience to hold our breath every time she's on the screen. In that regard, it's powerful filmmaking, and she brings to light an oft-ignored problem.
Dana meanwhile is addicted to opiates, has little to no cash, has a daughter who's dying of cancer and eventually dies, and then she attempts to commit suicide to get away from it all. Her character and her situation is bleak to say the least. It's difficult to watch and you almost want to close your eyes until the movie is finished, because you can't bear to watch the life of this seemingly good-hearted person.
Calvache does something fascinating with the character of Dana though. Dana is on the phone throughout the film, receiving calls regarding the doctor, her daughter, and from Nelson. We never hear the other side of those calls. We only hear Dana. Schönwald is fantastic in this role and deserves praise for embracing pain and hurt, and creating an empathetic and forgiving lead.
The movie works best when it's focused on Dana and the little girl locked up at Nelson's house. The dichotomy of these two drives the movie forward, as we know they will have to come to a head at some point. Dana's scenes performing odd sex jobs, including one to a recent graduate while his dad watches, make it impossible to look away and every scene with the little girl feels vital. The doctor is forgettable though, and services only as the person to save Dana from herself. His character doesn't have any sense of growth and we hear very little about his own sick daughter. While Dana's face is burned into your memory, the doctor's wafts away an hour after you leave the theater.
Though this film addresses necessary topics, it is brutal and violent and painstaking to process. The cruel nature of the story is almost too much to handle, and definitely would be too overwhelming for the casual viewer. It's driven by its honesty and the realness of the situations, no matter their dramatic elements. Once the film ends, you can't imagine seeing it again in your lifetime, unless in the form of a documentary.
Calvache's La Mala Noche is a good film. It's intense, arresting, and impactful. It's too gritty for most and too intense to likely go on to receive an Oscar nomination, but it certainly deserves a watch.