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‘Un Varón’ (‘A Male’) Review: A Young Boy Aches to Avoid Becoming a Hardened Man in Colombian Christmas Tale

The toxicity of patriarchal masculinity has become such a well-worn trope in pop culture (and especially in recent Colombian cinema) that it’s hard to remember its effects continue unabated in streets and households all over the world, and in that Latin American country specifically. And so, while Fabián Hernández’s central concerns in his simply-titled film, “A Man” (“Un Varón”), are all too familiar, his tale of a young man living in a shelter in the center of Bogotá who cannot escape the violence of the world of the streets around him, emerges nonetheless as a powerful portrait of the country’s inescapable machismo.

When Carlos (Dilan Felipe Ramírez Espitia) sits down to get a haircut, he has only one request: He wants one fit for a “varón.” Yet the English translation (“a man”) doesn’t quite capture the specificity of such a word in Colombian slang, for “varón” carries with it connotations of strength and strictness, of a kind of virility that straddles the line between being a “gentleman” and a “baller.” When we next see him, with his hair close-shaven in parts, a rat tail behind him, and angular fades further complementing the stripes he razors off his own eyebrows, his masculine cut feels as artificially produced as the toughened persona he’s called to present on any given day.

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Carlos lives in a world that demands he be tough. It’s how he earns respect in the youth shelter he lives in (that is when he can abide by its rules) and how he nurtures not so much friendships as alliances with similarly toughened young boys who see any problem as possibly solved with guns, fists, whores, drinks or drugs. The film follows Carlos on Christmas Eve as he hopes to make good on his promise to visit his mother in prison, showing just how hard it is for this young man to maintain the aggressive facade he knows he needs to survive.

As he interacts with folks at the shelter (who buy drugs from him in the showers), with his own sister (who’s had to resort to sex work to make ends meet) and even with an older woman at a bar (whose sexual advances he refuses, not without first getting her to commit to boasting about his prowess to anyone who’ll listen), it’s clear Carlos is struggling with keeping his self intact. In a number of long, steady shots that showcase DP Sofía Oggioni Hatty’s attention to Carlos’s own disjointed relationship to the dilapidated neighborhood all around him, “Un Varón” continually finds ways of subtly noting how this would-be braggart of a teen is hurting inside, and how he may be struggling with more than he can ever let on.

When he’s left alone in his sister’s room, he caresses her lingerie with a tender wistfulness that’s devoid of any lust, later using her lipstick to paint a pair of red lips on a mirror. Later, when a drunken foe harasses him into a room and yells at him to take off his jacket, waving his gun around as an obvious phallic stand-in, the camera hints at the contradicting messages no doubt running through Carlos’ mind. In this the film mostly succeeds because of Ramírez Espitia’s expressive face. Even within Carlos’ laconic demeanor, he telegraphs an anguish that flickers whenever he’s done gnashing at others and finds himself lonely and alone.

If masculinity and its attendant heterosexuality are an armor the angered teenager must don in order to survive, it’s an ill-fitting match Carlos would rather do away with altogether. He can’t, of course. And so his wayward journey down alleys and empty rooms, crowded bars and dangerous streets — often in silence, the film allowing the city’s soundscapes to heighten the sobering silence Carlos can’t escape — leads him to ever more violent scenarios.

Less successful — or rather, less organically incorporated — are the various snippets of on-camera interviews with the various other folks (men, mostly) who live in the shelter and who vocalize in much too didactic terms, how the streets demand a hardened exterior and an aggressive demeanor if you wish to survive. They’re an instance of Hernández telling what his film most intends to show instead.

With its Christmas-set backdrop and keen-eyed focus on the vicious cycles of poverty and violence that still run rampant in Colombia’s streets, “Un Varón” can’t help but be in conversation with Víctor Gaviria’s 1998 film, “La vendedora de rosas.” Yet such a comparison only further highlights how Hernández, alongside a new wave of Colombian directors that includes Laura Mora (“The Kings of the World”), Alejandro Landes (“Monos”) and Andrés Ramírez Pulido (“La Jauría”), is artfully blending the naturalism of Gaviria’s trailblazing approach with a heightened stylized aesthetic that wouldn’t just document the ravaging effects of the country’s machismo, but open up possible avenues for emancipation from it.

If the film’s final shot unsettles for its ambiguity, it’s there that “Un Varón” finds its most emotionally resonant beat and announces Hernández as a skillful chronicler of contemporary Colombia.

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