By: Winnie T. Sittón
Panama has produced its most internationally acclaimed feature film to date. The social drama “Plaza Catedral,” recently named one of fifteen films shortlisted for an Oscar in the Best International Film category, is the first production from the tiny Central American country to make it this far. The film was written and directed by Panamanian filmmaker Abner Benaim and stars Mexican actress Ilse Salas and non-professional actor Fernando Xavier de Casta. Sadly and ironically, the young Panamanian died before the premiere, a victim of the violence portrayed in the film.
At the heart of the plot lies Alicia, a woman who lost her six-year-old son in an accident. Her pain causes her to all but cut herself off from society, her marriage, and herself. Alicia lives in the Casco Antiguo neighborhood, a wealthy enclave in the old colonial part of Panama City. Casco Antiguo is surrounded by the city’s poorest slums, and that is where Alicia meets Chief, a bright street kid who makes a living by watching cars, and making sure he gets paid for it. She keeps her distance until one night the youth gets shot and makes his way into her apartment. The situation creates a bond between them.
Benaim, with a dozen of productions to his credit, says that this intimate and very personal drama draws from a number of sources, including his own experiences living in the Casco Antiguo neighborhood —in the same apartment in which the film was shot— where he experienced first-hand the reality he later tried to capture in the script. Then there’s his background as a documentary filmmaker; he is best known for titles such as “Invasión” (2014) and “Yo no me llamo Rubén Blades” (2018). His documentary experience is evident in “Plaza Catedral” in the camera work and the way Benaim directs non-professional actors.
The film immediately caught the attention of audiences and began winning awards. It premiered at the Guadalajara International Film Festival and, in the words of lead actor Ilse Salas, both critics and audiences were moved by it. “I saw the film with an audience for the first time in Guadalajara and I was really surprised by the reactions.
There were laughter, sighs, tears… it was very well received.” In the end, both Ilse and Fernando won Mezcal Awards for their impeccable performances and the film was nominated for Best Film. Then came its premiere at home, where it captivated Panamanian audiences and won the Audience Award at the Panama International Film Festival.
Shortly after came major recognition when the film was pre-selected for the 94th Academy Awards, scheduled for March 27, 2022. Although it wasn’t among the final five nominees for Best International Film, its inclusion on the shortlist for the famous Oscar is an award in itself, and is certain to ensure the film receives better global distribution and a wider audience.
The recognition is also a vote of confidence for Panama’s fledgling audiovisual industry, which seldom shares the spotlight with Latin American productions from countries like Argentina, Mexico, or Brazil.
One of the film’s greatest attributes is the on-camera chemistry between Ilse and Fernando. “I talked a lot with Abner before traveling to Panama. We exchanged our visions of the characters and once I arrived the connection with Fernando Xavier de Casta was almost immediate. Everything was very playful, although I wouldn’t say easy, because the character took a lot of work. Filming in Panama was also a lovely experience, with a small, warm, and generous crew,” added the Mexican actress, who is internationally recognized for her performances in films such as “Güeros,” “Cantinflas,” and “Las niñas bien.”
“Plaza Catedral” is now touring the world. For details on future screenings, check out the film’s social media on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok.