Manos Sucias

By: Yehudit Mam

This impressive Colombian film by Josef Kubota Wladyka is the narco film you haven't seen before. No tacky mansions are decked with souped up cars and batallions of cheap women. No laundered money rains from the sky, goldplating everything. This is about the very bottom of the barrel, an origin story of what snowy cocaine goes through before it reaches oblivious nostrils up north. We are in Buenaventura, in the coastal jungles of Colombia, where two estranged brothers, both of them poor and black, are hired by local goons to transport 100 kilos of blow through the water to Panama, on a fishing boat from which their cargo dangles underneath. Around them, all we see is poverty and neglect. They are both proud and desperate, but they don't seem made for a life of crime. Their bosses compare the assignment to a paid vacation, but there is a gun, and another goon, and we all know that dirty money never comes cheap.

What makes this film unique, besides the fact that it is produced by Spike Lee, is its interest in character and circumstance rather than in the typical action plot of the narco genre. I don't have much empathy for people who decide to take up drug dealing. They have to know the harm they face. But this movie makes a compelling case for the brothers. Delio, the younger one (Cristian Advíncula) is a wannabe rap artist who, at 19, already has a baby son. He is reckless and inexperienced. The taciturn one, Jacobo (Jarlin Martínez) has a tragic story behind him, thanks to drug related violence, and he wants the money to move to Bogotá and start afresh. Townspeople are taken aback: everybody knows that there are no black people in Bogotá. So this is not only a movie about drugs, but it is also a movie about race, which is unusual for a Latin American film. These people are forgotten because they are poor, and they are discriminated against because they are black.

As the brothers go on their errand, they bond and shoot the breeze, and eventually screw up. One can barely recognize the different threats, between soldiers, guerillas, other narcos, even not so innocent bystanders. But we quickly grasp how the drug trade worsens the lives of people who are already stressed to the max by poverty. I had an issue with the sentimental notion of these brothers as proud men who would otherwise be straight arrows. But Wladyka and his cowriter and cinematographer Alan Blanco mostly succeed in keeping it real. The actors are very good and the atmosphere is authentic.

In a lovely image, the brothers sail by a bunch of fishermen who are trying to make a living. Jacobo and Delio could be fishing too, but nobody throws fat rolls of cash at honest labor. Instead, they dirty their hands and they are soiled forever.

LOGISTICS: Manos Sucias, now showing in selected theaters. 

Yehudit Mam has been in love with movies since her mom took her to see Krakatoa, East of Java when she was a little girl. She is a film blogger, a creative director in advertising, and cofounder of