You won't see a more unsettlingly beautiful image this year: A street performer -- actually, an intersection performer -- turning a series of back flips while traffic piles up in downtown Lima, Peru. The girl gets a few coins from a commuter or two for her acrobatics. Then she moves out of harm's way and awaits the next red light.
In such a life, a harsh one not without its grace notes, green lights aren't easily found. "Oblivion" ("El Olvido") throws its net across a considerable range of human behavior and bittersweet survival stories, and the result is a wise and beautiful documentary from Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann. She captures, effortlessly, Lima and its people in a way that relates to politics, sociology, suffering and dignity.
It begins with a cocktail -- a Pisco Sour, Lima's signature drink, as mixed by veteran bartender Jorge Kanashiro. He's one of Honigmann's key portrait subjects, a man who works not far from the government palace. He has whipped up drinks for presidents and thugs and tourists alike. He describes Peruvian history as "a badly mixed cocktail," made of "semi-democratic elections, coups, terrorism and corruption." His Pisco Sour looks fantastic.
In a lovely old restaurant known as El Cordano, dating to 1905, Luis Cerna -- a sweet, melancholy man with a turned-down smile who has waited tables for more than a half-century -- is seen going through his well-practiced paces. He is an economic success story as well as a domestic one: His wife tells the camera that he is a fine man, since he has never hit her. His children dote on him. Others we meet in "Oblivion" exist closer to the edge of oblivion, including a heartbreaking shoeshine boy, Henry. He is 14 and, asked by the unseen Honigmann, says he harbors neither bad memories nor good ones. Dreams? "I hardly ever dream"
The elegance of the filmmaking brings out the inner lives of these people without undue fuss or theatrics. In lesser hands, the notion of scoring some of these images to Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3, for example, would come off as cheap poetry. Not here.
Honigmann, whose film is a co-production of the Netherlands, France and Germany, came up with the idea after encountering a waiter at a fancy Lima restaurant. She told one interviewer she realized, "There must be many waiters, bartenders and little shop owners in the streets around the government palace who had been sitting on the first rows of the theater of history and had much to tell about it, but who had never been invited to do so." That's why a good documentary stays with you: When the right people find the right listener, the world expands a little bit -- theirs, and ours.
No MPAA rating (some thematic elements)
Running time: 1:33.
Opens: Friday at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.
Featuring: Jorge Kanashiro, Luis Cerna, Adolfo Chavez, Mauro Gomez
Written and directed by: Heddy Honigmann; produced by Carmen Cobos. A Cobos Films release.