Juan Paulo Laserna Arias’ Las Malas Lenguas opens on a scene of a group of young women drinking and talking dismissively about the men in their lives. They discuss penises as objects the same way men are often heard to talk about the organs of women. For a moment, it seems the film will be a depiction of female empowerment. But the scene turns out to be a feint, a tease before we are shown how, despite the social conditioning that puts men and women in separate spheres, this is still a world where one half of the population holds dominion over the other, and the slightest mistake can tear a woman’s life apart. It’s a well-developed message but Arias fails, in the end, to keep the film’s tone on track.
Manuela (Sara Montoya) is a university student contemplating following her best friend, Adriana (Matilda de Los Milagros Londoño) to Brazil upon graduation. When she falls pregnant, though, she becomes tortured by indecision before she finds herself flattened under all the decisions being made on her behalf.
The scenes that follow her diagnosis are the film’s best. Using close-ups, slight adjustments in volume and heightened performances, Arias puts us inside Manuela’s mind as she envisions possible outcomes for herself and deals with the actual ones. The trick is that we often don’t quite know whether what we’re seeing is real or imagined. There’s a brief period where Manuela is allowed to pretend that, in fact, none of it is real, because she hasn’t yet told anyone.
At first, Manuela’s continued drinking is a sign that the truth of her condition hasn’t yet sunk in. Soon, though, it becomes clear that her destructive behavior is a result of everything else in her life being out of her control. Before she knows where she stands, she finds herself engaged and attending baby showers, becoming the focus of attention she doesn’t want. Unfortunately, this character development also leads to an unnecessarily high-strung pitch.
Las Malas Lenguas’ most striking insight is that the oppression of the patriarchy has so saturated culture that it comes from every direction, not just the men. The coercion of Manuela, the assumption of decisions she never made, are as much if not more prevalent from her mother, future mother-in-law and female cousins.
It’s disheartening that Las Malas Lenguas can contain such a well-developed and powerful message but devolve into the realm of cheap melodrama. Its impact would be greater if it were as good a film as a polemic.