Panama makes its debut on the International Feature Oscar shortlist with the character-driven thriller Plaza Catedral. This contender from Abner Benaim (Ruben Blades Is Not My Name) is a taut two-hander between a grieving mother and a young street hustler, with a sobering message about corruption and violence. Samuel Goldwyn Films recently acquired the title.
Alicia (Ilse Salas) is a well-heeled Mexican architect working in Panama, who moves into a swish new apartment in Plaza Catedral. A young teen known as “Chief” (Fernando Xavier De Casta) offers her “VIP parking” and she haggles wearily, assuring him she’s no “gringa.” Over the coming days, they develop a grudging understanding. When he shows up on the stairs of her building bleeding from a gunshot wound, she has a choice. Help the boy and risk her own safety, or turn a blind eye?
It’s a palpable moral dilemma in a city where crime is around every corner, and trust is hard-earned. “The younger they are, the more dangerous they are,” warns Alicia’s doctor friend, and this thought plays on her mind as she becomes increasingly comfortable in Chief’s company.
Matthew Herbert’s effective score both reflects Alicia’s feelings and occasionally misdirects, inviting a mixture of suspicion, nerves and hope. As Alicia remembers her tragic past, the mood leans more towards drama. When she finally opens up about it, it’s one of the film’s most powerful scenes.
Plaza Catedral is an unusual mix of grief drama and culture-clash thriller, but there’s a veracity and thoughtfulness that elevates it above potentially sensationalist material. And while there’s an inherent danger of the middle-class-savior trope, this touches on the complexities of the class chasm it’s depicting, and doesn’t suggest that Alicia can be easily fixed by helping Chief. She is often shown gazing down from the tops of buildings, but there is an emptiness to her loftiness.
Salas puts in a compelling performance, while De Casta flits between cocky threat and ambiguous charm with a tender touch. Like many International Feature contenders, Plaza Catedral highlights problems in the country it’s depicting. But this depiction of gang violence comes with a heartbreaking real-life postscript: Fernando Xavier De Casta was shot dead shortly after production ended.