2012 // Paraguay // Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori // November 17, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theatre)
Momentum is essential to the success of 7 Boxes, a gritty, borderline farcical chase picture that unfolds over the course of a single day in Asunción, Paraguay. Directors Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori set up the story’s premise with a minimum of delay: callow 17-year-old Victor (Celso Franco) makes a few guaraní hauling loads on his rickety wheelbarrow in the sprawling market-slum known as Mercado 4. One sweltering morning, following a run-in with rival barrow jockey Nelson (Víctor Sosa), Victor is offered an unusual delivery job by Gus (Roberto Cardozo), a butcher who has become exasperated with Nelson’s tardiness. Truthfully, it’s sort of an anti-delivery job. Victor’s wheelbarrow is hastily loaded with seven wooden crates, and the boy is instructed to steer the boxes around the market for the rest of the day, avoiding patrols by the slow-witted but thoroughly corrupt police. If Victor returns with the untampered containers at the end of day, Gus promises him one hundred American dollars, which will more than cover the cost of the new cell phone which the boy has been coveting.
As protagonists go, Victor doesn’t do much to invite the viewer’s sympathy. He embodies everything interminable about the contemporary adolescent male: a self-absorbed and somewhat oblivious twerp whose horizons don’t extend much further than kung fu films and a generalized longing for wealth and celebrity. (Women don’t yet seem to be a part of the equation.) Still, as embodied by Franco, Victor has heartthrob charm and child’s soft-heartedness. He also possesses a prey animal’s quick-witted instinct for survival, which has enabled him to eke out half a living in a market crowded with older, tougher competitors. However, he still relies on the kindness of older sister Tamara (Nelly Davalos), a doting yet reproachful women who works in the kitchen of a local Chinese restaurant. She crosses paths with her brother several times over the course of the day, but she has her own preoccupations in the form of a very pregnant co-worker, a perpetually annoyed boss, and the latter’s lovelorn son. The one individual who sticks close to Victor during his odyssey is Liz (Lali Gonzalez), a grubby adolescent girl from the market who incessantly pesters him and has zero tolerance for his exasperated attempts to boss her around.
Victor’s antiheroic qualities are consistent with the 7 Boxes’ broader approach, which begins with an elementary thriller scenario and then gives it all sorts of unusual little twists. For example, while the violent, spiteful Nelson is the closest thing the film has to a pure villain, Maneglia, Schembori, and co-writer Tito Chamorro paint his circumstances as pitiable. Penniless and unable to procure medicine for his newborn child, Nelson slides into a dead-eyed desperation, where he is ready and willing to do anything for cash. Cutting his own deal with Gus’ superiors, the antsy Don Dario (Paletita) and irritated Luis (Nico García), Nelson calls in favors and gathers together an entire band of aggrieved barrow-pushers for one purpose: killing Victor and seizing his precious cargo. If a pack of tenpenny assassins steering wheelbarrows menacingly through a nocturnal marketplace seems a tad absurd, that’s because it is absurd. Consistent with the Coen Brothers’ thrillers and Djo Munga’s recent Congolese crime picture Viva Riva!, the occasional weirdness of 7 Boxes tends to enhance rather than detract from the film’s aura of uncanny menace.
Such forays into comedic territory don’t always pay dividends; 7 Boxes’ humor is at times too broad, simplistic, and predictable. When the film does take genuinely amusing swerves, they tend to be of the drier sort, such as when muggers snatch Don Dario and Luis’ cell phones, but overlook the duffel bag full of cash that the pair are carrying. The conflation of the cutting edge smartphone with status and power is a recurring motif in the film, as is the ever-fluctuating guaraní-dollar exchange rate. Such fixations suggest deeper ambitions on the part of Maneglia and Schembori, but they never amount to much. 7 Boxes certainly seems to have lots to say about wealth, fame, violence, capitalism, post-colonialism, and the like, but it never quite gets around to exploring such themes in any meaningful way.
Fortunately, 7 Boxes is still a pretty great chase film. The directors maintain an irresistible, jittery sense of forward inertia, while also keeping the viewer slightly off balance, such that the oncoming narrative turns are only glimpsed at the last minute. In these respects, the film borrows quite explicitly from Run, Lola, Run, although 7 Boxes lacks that feature’s formal daring. The film is much more sprawling than one might expect, given the centrality of Victor’s mission to the story. The film is continuously taking oddball detours, following almost every secondary character at one point or another, and cultivating an appreciation for the complexity and interconnectedness of Asunción street life. This is less about sociological observation than about creating a black comedy of errors that unfolds according to some sadistic cosmic playbook. Someone up there is having a laugh at Victor and everyone else involved in this sweaty, bloody fiasco. Only divine meddling (or pure dumb luck) can explain the collision of every narrative line in the final scenes of 7 Boxes. Some characters perish, some escape, and everything piles up into one big shambles of asinine mistakes, curdled schemes, and foolish nobility. Just another day in the market, in other words.