Alejandro Landes’ second film, “Porfirio,” is a very unusual sort of biopic. It is a minimalist, minutely detailed and observational portrait of its title subject that richly mines the sometimes porous boundary between fiction and documentary, and is thus simultaneously both and neither.
“Porfirio” was inspired by the true story of Porfirio Ramirez Aldana, a formerly successful Colombian coca farmer who became permanently paralyzed after being caught in the crossfire of police bullets. He subsequently was forced to flee his hometown due to the country’s raging civil war, and lost his money and property as a result, reduced to earning a meager living selling his cell-phone minutes in a poor city suburb. This is the situation where we find Porfirio in the film, in which he plays himself. Frustrated with his inability to receive assistance from social services or the legal system, he resorted to hijacking a plane to Bogotá with a hand grenade. Porfirio was jailed and placed under house arrest, where he met Landes, who spent five years developing the film in close collaboration with its subject and main character.
Despite its roots in reality, “Porfirio” is markedly different from a documentary, since every shot was meticulously storyboarded, its widescreen compositions making potent and striking use of empty space and off-center framing of the people Landes depicts. Landes focuses very little on the hijacking that is the ultimate denouement of this scenario (although this lends some palpable tension to the film’s latter passages), instead bestowing its penetrating gaze on the details of Porfirio’s daily routines, rituals, and struggle to survive. Porfirio’s loss of dignity due to his immobility and dependence on others also comes through in a powerful way; this manifests itself in his expressed dreams of flight and freedom from being essentially a prisoner of his own body. However, his life is not simply monotonous misery; he composes and sings love ballads to his neighbor Jasbleidy (Yor Jasbleidy Santos Torre), a young woman who bathes him, helps him get around and is an occasional sex partner. He also gets along well with his son Lissin (Jarlinsson Ramirez Reinoso), despite his son’s rather lazy nature and his preference to hang with his friends rather than take care of his father.
“Porfirio” is a shining example of the innovative and visually beautiful work currently coming out of Latin America, of which this year’s festival offers a few other examples. Landes takes what could have been rendered as a sensationalistic tabloid tale, and digs underneath its surface to find a complex humanity and sensual atmosphere. As a result, he has come up with an indelibly memorable film marking the emergence of a major cinematic talent.
“Porfirio” screens at the Walter Reade Theater on April 1 at 3 p.m. To purchase tickets, visit the New Directors/New Films website [http://newdirectors.org/film/porfirio/].