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Dread on Arrival

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Wiesner Distribution

MOVIE REVIEW
El cuartito (2021)

Set in a San Juan, Puerto Rico, airport (presumably, Luis Muñoz Marín International) during the Trump presidency, “El cuartito” revolves around travelers flagged by customs officers for “additional processing.” Among them: Toti (Mario de la Rosa), a washed-up Spaniard rocker scheduled to perform a Thanksgiving concert without a work visa; Lina (Claribel Medina), a melodramatic former actress lugging an entire medicine cabinet worth of pills en route to meet her sister on a cruise ship; Mariel (Isel Rodriguez), traveling with an expired U.S. passport after falling for an Argentinian and leaving the U.S. in her teens; Jesús (Ianis Guerrero), attempting to reunite with his family after their botched border-crossing attempt; and Santo (Fausto Mata), a delusional preacher with a forged missionary visa.

The bulk of the film takes place inside an austere, windowless holding cell – a perfect setting for “Escape Room.” There’s a portrait of President Trump, a drinking fountain and a tray of sandwiches brought in by the guards. But no restroom. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is a lot of things; inhumane isn’t one of them. At minimum, detainees would at least have access to a restroom. When I experienced this firsthand while transiting through LAX between two foreign countries, detainees and contractors shared space in a homey house furnished with couches and a TV. Contractors were never inaccessible or out-of-sight. Not saying Luis Muñoz Marín International should have had the exact same setup, but not having a restroom and a vending machine is severe, to say the least.

“El cuartito” doesn’t even begin to capture just how nerve-racking it actually is to be detained by customs officers regardless of whether you’ve done something wrong – especially if there’s a language barrier or you’re expected elsewhere, like aboard a connection flight. Cowriters Marcos Carnevale (who also directs) and Javier De Nevares appear uninterested in the suspense attendant to such. When a bystander snitches after eavesdropping on Jesús’s phone conversation about dropping off an unspecified package, it’s unclear whether the film is indeed trying to rile up viewers with the racial profiling, because, after all, Jesús is indeed guilty of something. With Lina and Santo flagrantly trying to weasel their way out with their exasperating personalities, it becomes obvious that Messers. Carnevale and De Nevares have broad comedy in mind.

In many ways, “El cuartito” achieves the same results as “I Carry You With Me,” in that the filmmakers are only interested in their characters as avatars. At least Mr. Carnevale isn’t dealing with real lives or pretending to care, so in that regard “El cuartito” is the superior film.

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