In modern day Columbia, just as in the rest of the world, the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, swallowing entire generations in the process. This is the bleak reality at the heart of Gente De Bien, the third feature from Colombian director Franco Lolli which, although nothing new, is a solid entry in the enduring stable of Latin American social cinema.
The film approaches the issue through 10-year-old Eric (Brayan Santamaria), sent to live with his estranged father Gabriel (Carlos Fernando Perez) who scrapes together a living as a carpenter. After taking pity on their plight, his wealthy client Maria Isabel (Alejandra Borrero) invites the pair to spend Christmas with her family. Initially everyone is welcoming but the festive facade soon begins to crack – and it’s Eric who bears the emotional brunt.
Staying just on the right side of melodrama, Gente De Bien – which translates to either ‘good’ or ‘well-off people’ – is a well-observed snapshot of life below the poverty line. Through nuanced human interaction, Lolli effectively makes the damning point that this an endemic problem which, despite the good intentions of individuals like Maria Isabel, is embedded in the Colombian psyche. This is particularly clear in the behaviour of the children; initially friendly, they soon turn on Eric and he becomes an outcast for no apparent reason other than he is an interloper who simply does not belong.
As Eric, newcomer Santamaria is outstanding, his infectious energy propelling the narrative and adding real weight to its message. Without his buoyant spirit the film may have buckled under its own good intentions, Lolli’s determination to highlight the drudgery of deprivation resulting in a sluggish tone. As it is, Eric’s innocent joy – dancing to a favourite song, splashing in a pool – is enough to prevent this story from becoming entirely moribund although, as Eric’s eyes are opened to the injustices all around, these moments become, heartbreakingly, fewer and further between.
UK Release: April 17, 2015
An edited version of this review was originally published at The List