Smuggler’s Blues, by Dayne Linford
The typical filmic criminal narrative takes its cues from The Godfather, a story of the boss, the rise of the new boss, and, sometimes, his fall. Sometimes we get films about the little guys, such as Goodfellas, about the less powerful elements of criminal enterprises. Rarely does film touch on the very bottom of the criminal ladder, the cogs in a vast machine eking out a living even as they’re exploited by the enterprise they’re involved in. Manos Sucias, the feature debut of Josef Kubota Wladyka, is about these people, two men tasked with transporting by boat, along the coastline of Columbia up to Panama, a torpedo filled with one hundred kilos of cocaine.
It carries a laser-like focus throughout, opening with the two leads, Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez) and Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) being taken to pick up the cargo, small flashbacks of the days prior to this trip filling us in on the details of their lives, and then it’s just the trip from there on out, a harrowing three days as they, accompanied by Hector (Javier Martinez), safeguarding the cargo, head for Panama two countries away. The actors settle nicely into their characters, a sense of authenticity and ease of being characterizing their movements, their small conflicts and power dynamics bubbling to the surface as the journey begins, their interior motives and dialogues unfolding naturally.
We quickly learn that Jacobo and Delio are actually estranged brothers, separated for years despite living practically in the same neighborhood, immediately creating a conflict of loyalty for them both. Jacobo is the more experienced, here on his last job, a cliché that works here not because it’s the wistful exhaustion of your standard heist movie, but because his eyes carry an empty desperation as he says it – having already lost everything, he simply must escape. Delio is on his first, hoping to prove his mettle to the bosses and secure further work, leaving behind a construction guide and attempting to provide for his girlfriend and infant daughter. The dichotomy between the two, one attempting to leave and the other attempting to secure himself inside, is a little manufactured, but effective. Especially given the prevalence of this business in Columbia, it’s not entirely impossible for such a thing to happen, and it works as an effective shorthand for the basis of a complex relationship between the brothers that plays out very nicely. Especially as a way of insuring the film’s 78 minute running length, I’ll take it.
Given that Spike Lee produced the film, it shouldn’t be surprising that race plays a significant if, for Lee anyway, subdued role in the action of the film. Largely about those on the very bottom of Columbian society, most of the cast is black, as are most of the victims. Those even one step above them, in this instance hardly in a more socially stable position, are lighter skinned. The question of race plays out especially in the interactions between Hector and the brothers, the swaggering authority he displays towards them about more than just the money offered. Early on, the film demonstrates just how cheap black lives are when Delio and his friend are brought before a crime boss about the job. The boss is irate, pulling his pistol and informing his associate, who brought them, that he only asked for one, before informing them they’ll have to choose who lives and who does not. A tense moment passes before he chuckles at his joke and says they’re fine, but only one will be going on the job. It’s a stereotypical scene, both the casually murderous boss and the joke reveal, especially after City of God, but the scene, and the character, still make their point – these lives are cheap and can be taken easily and without consequence.
Ultimately, this leads to what Manos Sucias is really about – demonstrating the reality of the drug trade, without the standard glamor of your Scarface or even, on much more realistic and interesting tones, your City of God. For Jacobo and Delio, the money will not be spent on expensive cars or prostitutes. They will get paid or they will die, and the hoped for payday will be no windfall. This is not the big score in Goodfellas or Le Cercle Rouge, but it takes every bit as much desperation, violence, and moral violation as those films do. Though the film relies a little too much on gangster clichés and manufactured connections, its main point comes through very clearly and with real force, that the evil of this trade, borne of desperate needs, is overwhelming and that most of us will simply be overwhelmed by it.