We've seen films about freedom fighters before.
Here in America, we've seen films about seemingly faraway places where authoritarians oppress and the people fight for their freedom.
Quite often, we've watched this fight through a rather romanticized lens. In the usual Hollywood style, the good guys win and the bad guys lose and justice is served.
Of course, I think we all know it's not so simple. If we're paying attention, even in America we know it's not that simple. Authoritarians don't give up their authority easily and even the greatest victories for freedom fighters come at a remarkable cost of mind, body, and spirit.
Writer/director Diego Vicentini's narrative feature debut Simón is about one of those faraway places, in this case Venezuela, and yet this riveting psychological thriller makes Venezuela feel as if it could be in our own backyard as Vicenti tells the story of Simón, a young freedom fighter who joins many others in facing off against the authoritarian Venezuelan regime before eventually escaping to Miami where he works against the clock to obtain asylum before he will be forcibly returned. Aided in his effort to stay by Melissa, an American pre-law student, Simón struggles between building a life for himself in America and continuing to support his friends who have remained in Venezuela.
While it sounds as if Simón may turn out to be just another freedom fighter story, Vicentini has crafted a finely nuanced and remarkably honest story based upon true events not just of a single story but more of the collective struggle within Venezuela for those who stay and the many who have left.
What so many films of this type fail to capture is the considerable cost for those people who've fought for their freedoms yet ultimately decided to start over elsewhere. Simultaneously dealing with what would be described as PTSD over his experiences while imprisoned due to his participation in protests and yet also traumatized by the journey of barely surviving in a new and unfamiliar land, Simón is riveting because it humanizes the universality of survivor's guilt, trauma, grief, and the overwhelming desire we all have for a better life.
Recreating the title role from Vicentini's short film by the same name, Christian McGaffney offers an achingly powerful performance as Simón. McGaffney's Simón is constantly torn between the argument of "Should I stay or should I go?" while also reliving his traumatic experiences often at the most inopportune times. McGaffney gives a riveting performance destined to be one of the year's finest.
While Jana Nawartschi's performance as Melissa could easily have been a throwaway supporting role, Nawartschi brings it beautifully to life as Melissa both helps Simón seek asylum and becomes a safe space where he can time and again relive the memories of imprisonment, beatings, humiliations, and much more. Nawartschi is so good here that you don't realize how good she is until the closing credits have rolled and you can't stop thinking about her.
In his narrative feature debut, Venezuelan social media comedian/personality Robert Jaramillo practically demands to be taken seriously as an actor as Chucho. While I wouldn't dare say that Jaramillo adds comic elements to Simón, he adds a lighter humanity as both a best friend and committed human being who proves, perhaps, that they can take your body but not your spirit.
Lensing by Horacio Martinez is stunningly immersive and intimate and, indeed, part of what makes Simón feel as if it could be unfolding next door. Original music by Freddy Sheinfeld is atmospheric and richly humane in its rhythms both highs and lows. Both Martinez and Sheinfeld beautifully support Vicentini's remarkable storytelling.
Among the supporting players, Franklin Vírgüez mesmerizes as Colonel Lugo. With a relatively brief yet unforgettable monologue, Lugo should take his place among cinema's most memorable baddies. Perhaps the true impact of the monologue is realizing that with his words he's also saying that even if he would be defeated he would quickly be replaced.
There's always another oppressor.
Luis Silva also shines as Joaquin, though if we're being honest this is a mighty fine ensemble.
Having had its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature, Simón takes a deeper dive and becomes a richer, more deeply human, and more psychologically and politically precise motion picture that is not easily forgotten nor shaken. At times exhilarating in its humanity and other times brutal in its reminders of the evil that humans can inflict on one another, Simón is a tremendous debut feature for Diego Vicentini and a film that begs to be seen and remembered. The film makes its Midwest Premiere at the Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis with screenings set for 10/8 at noon at Kan-Kan Cinema and 10/12 at 7:30pm at Landmark Glendale 12.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic