Manos Sucias translates into English as “dirty hands.” Literal meaning can be applied to those words, but unsurprisingly the greater significance is figurative; in movie terms, such gestures often portend overstatement that’s easily exacerbated by a filmmaker’s youthful intensity, but if imperfect, Josef Kubota Wladyka’s first feature benefits from restraint and economy. It’s a largely satisfying debut holding promise for the future.
Seven years in the making, the movie was finished after receiving the Spike Lee Fellowship Award, with Lee one of Wladyka’s professors at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Frankly, this sort of relationship can reflect a direct line of influence, but other than shared social commitment, Wladyka’s execution is substantially different. This is not to suggest Manos Sucias is unconnected to precedent.
In a nutshell, it’s the story of two estranged brothers, the older Jacobo reserved, the younger Delio impulsive, hauling a cocaine-stuffed narco-torpedo by fishing boat in the Pacific from Columbia toward Panama for a gang of drug-runners; it’s got the smuggler’s tale, a tropical setting and a water-voyage down pat. Well-worn traditions all, but don’t expect overt adherence to past models. For the majority of the 77-minute running time it’s a realist travelogue, concerned with communication as much as action, though things get off to a somewhat inauspicious start, Wladyka unfolding character and background in rather boilerplate fashion. As if underlining the aspects of deepest interest to the director, the filmmaking decidedly improves once the journey is underway.
Manos Sucias is vividly photographed and mostly avoids realist tropes; for one example, image-shakiness is kept at an acceptable level. The film also reaps the rewards of location shooting and is effectively acted by first-time native performers. It surely helps that the dialogue they are given is of solid construction; I only noticed one instance of “as you know” exposition. Music is deftly used both on the soundtrack and as part of the narrative, Delio an aspiring rapper while stern Jacobo disapproves of his choice. It’s certainly a cliché waiting to happen, but Wladyka sidesteps the trap through knowledge of his milieu and by trusting Cristian James Abvincula and Jarlin Javier Martinez to fully inhabit their roles. Later they bond over a song and the effect is powerful.
Of course it’s inevitable that the plan will go wrong, but the mishap arrives abruptly; no convoluted blunders here. Another positive facet is the attention paid to the makeshift motorized rail transit, casually detailing ingenuity prior to a legitimately thrilling chase. Throwing an ailing grandmother into the story does teeter on going overboard with the humanity; however, it’s hard to deny that it complicates the ensuing conflict, an explosion of violence just as inevitable but also unexpected in how it transpires.
Suffice it to say, the dirtiest hands have for the most part remained off-screen and avoided comeuppance. Manos Sucias’ main characters may have escaped the worst of possibilities in their dangerous undertaking, but the endeavor undeniably changed them; as the film ends they are left with troubling uncertainty.