Ricardo (Ruben Reyes) is a language teacher in the United States, specifically teaching Garifuna, the language of the Garinagu, descendants of the Carib, Arawak and West African people who now live predominantly in Central America. In the case of Ricardo, his family home is in Honduras, where his brother Miguel (Julian Castillo) still resides. As land development grows around their village, to bolster the tourism industry, Miguel finds himself seduced into working for one of the resorts, and ultimately coerced into selling his family’s land (land that Ricardo was under the impression was being used to build a school, where the village could get back in touch with their Garifuna culture by learning their native language, which was slowly being replaced by the more prevalent Spanish).
As Miguel’s decisions cause trouble in the community, so too do they bring ire upon Ricardo, who the community feels is responsible for his brother’s actions. While Ricardo tries to sort out the issues surrounding his family’s land, his immediate family is going through their own dramas. Daughter Helena (Yessica Alvarez) is seeing a man, and trying her best to navigate the relationship without putting herself in a disrespectful spot, and oldest son Elija (E.J. Mejia Jr.), often rebelling against his own culture (unwilling to speak or understand Garifuna in a home that speaks it almost exclusively), makes the decision to finally embrace his heritage, by performing in a stage play about Garifuna history.
There’s a very unique and distinct vibe to Alí Allié and Ruben Reyes’ feature film, Garifuna in Peril. While traditional narrative structure exists within the film, and it even plays with parallel storylines to underscore developments in each, there’s something matter-of-fact about the movie that makes it feel natural. I’m not talking realistic in a single camera, almost documentary way; there’s an overall mood and tone that makes the film feel less than cinematic, but not in a detrimental way.
Maybe that comes down to the editorial flow, as the film pieces scenes together in a proper order, but scenes play out as if they would in real life, if we were suddenly interrupting a moment. There’s sometimes a lack of a clear beginning and end to scenes, just that we’re in them, and while I would’ve predicted such a feeling would lead to confusion or just be uncomfortable, the opposite is true. It feels natural, just matter-of-fact.
Or maybe it has something to do with the acting. There’s certainly a rough feel to many of the performances, like those involved are new to acting. Whereas this could lend itself to over-the-top displays, it works here in another sense, more subdued. Again, evoking that feeling of spying on real life as opposed to watching a movie.
It’s a strange feeling, honestly. You know you’re watching a film, but often you get caught up less in the dramatic developments than in learning about the Garifuna culture. Sitting in on Ricardo’s classes as he teaches the language feels like you’re actually sitting in on a lesson. Likewise as you share the journey with Ricardo’s son as he tries to connect to a culture he’s be rebelling against.
Lest you think this is some experimental tale, I know I’m speaking of it in such a way that could give an odd impression, it is very much a drama with character arcs and story acts and the like. It just doesn’t feel like that until we move into the final third of the film, when Ricardo returns to Honduras to deal with the mess Miguel has left for him. It is in these moments we get a more traditional feeling of conflict and obstacles to be overcome, and the possibility for a happy, or otherwise ending. Until that point, we’re just living the experiences more so than perhaps recognizing their narrative impact.
But that’s me. Someone else could watch this and find it terribly boring. Moments are definitely allowed to breathe here, and while it didn’t bother me, I do think the film could be tightened. I also think it is the type of film that will be an acquired taste, and some aren’t going to be interested in going on the journey regardless. Garifuna in Peril just has a distinct flavor to it; if you open yourself to it, you just might learn something.
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