Out in the jungle, no one can hear you dragging a body around. Mind you, nobody notices much what you do in the city, either. Colombian director Andres Ramirez Pulido’s debut feature, La Jauria, screening in Critics’ Week at Cannes, opens with a grab-bag of images familiar from current Latin American cinema — a couple of teenage boys in neon-lit urban darkness, some elaborate sniffing and nose-wiping, a bike that shouts “stolen” as they careen down a highway — but soon detours into stranger and much more remote territory. One thing you can be sure of: wherever they are, these boys are going to be in trouble.
Where they are, once that opening sequence has set a scene that will immediately be ripped from beneath our feet, is mysterious. Eliu (Jhojan Estiven Jiminez) previously seen under a streetlight with a bottle in his hand, is one of a gang working around a decrepit hacienda, emptying a stagnant swimming pool of weeds under the sun before going into a clearing to do peculiar exercises led by Alvaro, (Miguel Viera), shriveled but tough, who tells them to breathe, close their eyes and let negative energy return to the earth. A ritual drum-beat dominates the soundtrack. Then they sleep in a bare room, chained together and chewed by mosquitoes. Misbehave and you get to squat for hours in a stress position or make the group starve for days, while Alvaro assures everyone that, like the gang in Fast and Furious, they’re all family.
What is this place? A kind of open prison, but run like a cult and — as we discover later — under the auspices of a remote boss who is using these juvenile prisoners as cheap labor to turn the hacienda into a spa hotel. Eliu refuses to speak to El Mono (Maicol Andres Jiminez), his old partner in street crime, when he arrives in a cattle truck with the next consignment of boys. El Mono, always cocky, wants to know why not. “Things are different here,” mumbles Eliu. He mostly looks at the ground when he isn’t working. They all do. “Swallow your words,” warns another inmate.
They are also required to swallow a range of unspecified drugs — the modern jailer — although that’s nothing new to any of them. The one conversation we hear between the boys, taking a break from cutting down the encroaching forest from what was the hacienda’s back garden, is a lively exchange about the best combinations of drugs they have ever had. The best thing in life — the only good thing — is getting wasted.
When Eliu’s little brother (Carlos Steven Blanco) comes to visit, he is clearly shaping up for the same dreary future. “School: I’m not into it,” he declares. “I hang out with Grillo and his gang; we’ve squatted a village house. Since you were locked up, I’ve learned things.”
There is, the film suggests, something foul in these kids born into street crime that erupts as violence, as addiction, even giving rise to their habitual surliness. That foul thing, whether you want to shore it home to poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence or some demon, is ingrained for life — or so they are led to believe of themselves, which amounts to the same thing. “Let’s not waste time with this scum,” says the prosecutor when Eliu and El Mono are driven at dead of night in chains to the forest to find the body of the man they murdered together. Godoy, the thuggish guard almost never seen without a huge rifle hung across his chest, looms in the shadows. The relatives of the murdered man — a minor crime boss Eliu supposedly mistook for his own father — stand by morosely as the boys are questioned. It is as if they are on trial, but in the middle of the jungle in the small hours.
This is La Jauria: a finely calibrated mix of recognizable social realism and dystopian weirdness. Like the boys who are driven to their prison in blindfolds, we never know quite where we are. Stylized compositions, showing characters held for a moment in the middle of the screen, add to the uneasy sense that we are in a world gone mad, where some of us are prisoners and some guards, but that, beyond that, there are no rules.
In this and in its evocative use of Colombia’s extraordinary natural landscape, La Jauria pays tribute to Alejandro Landes’ remarkable 2019 film Monos, about a cult of teenage warriors who are trained in the Colombian mountains by a cabal of maniacs. At first, you wonder if the two films, taken together, constitute some sort of Colombian Cinematic Universe, a bizarre franchise involving drugged-up teenage survivalists. As it settles into its own groove, however, it feels more like a bookend. Kids at war; kids in prison. A lot of kids high as kites. La Jauria is grim going, but it really is a very special film.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.