San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica’s own ‘El Regreso’ hits theaters

Life in Costa Rica requires tolerance. It is a balancing act. Sanity is found within the thresholds of what you can tolerate, between the things you love and hate about life here. If you can’t accept the dichotomy of sweet beauties soured by instances of immense frustration, maybe Costa Rica isn’t for you. 

The same can be applied to family. Strained relationships, disagreements and incomprehensible behaviors are all part of the package. Love it, accept it, or leave it. 

In his new film, “El Regreso” (“The Return”), opening today, rising Tico cinema star Hernán Jiménez grapples with these themes of accepting both country and family. Jiménez, who wrote and directed the film, also stars in it as Antonio, a 30-year-old writer who returns home to visit Costa Rica after living in New York for 10 years. 

“‘El Regreso’ is about returning to everything that you love and hate about your home and family, and having to deal with that duality of emotions after spending years away,” Jiménez said at the movie’s screening last week. “That return to your home and past to find everything changed and difficult is not only a Costa Rican theme, but a universal one.” 

The film opens with Antonio staring out an airplane window as it cuts through clouds and looks down upon the colorful, worn tin roofs of the Central Valley sprawl near Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela. Antonio lands, hops in a taxi and is immediately reminded of the sights and sounds of San José, the hometown he hasn’t seen in 10 years. Cars honk, taxi drivers yell, buses churn out plumes of exhaust, and motorcycles zip through the chaos. In downtown, trash lines the streets, bums beg for change, fried chicken warms under red lamps in restaurant windows, and fruit vendors sit on crates and stools on the sidewalks. 

At home, Antonio finds things equally stressful. His sister is overzealous, loud and distracted, he has to share a bed with a 4-year-old nephew he’s never met, and his ailing father shows little concern for his arrival, despite having summoned his son home for an urgent conversation. 

Antonio’s father, played by Luis Fernando Gómez, asks about his son’s coming-home observations: “How did San José look?”

Hecho mierda” (“Like crap”), Antonio responds. 

“How does the house look?”

Hecho mierda.”

“How do I look?” 

Antonio grins and sheepishly avoids answering. 

At the conclusion of their conversation, Antonio’s father refuses to say why he asked his son to return home. Frustrated, Antonio announces that he is returning to New York the next day and storms out of the house. 

Things continue to sour from there. After attending the concert of an old friend, César, played by Mohawk-sporting scene stealer Daniel Ross, Antonio is robbed at gunpoint as he walks home at night. The thieves make off with his passport, and Antonio cannot return to New York for several weeks. 

Forced to remain in Costa Rica, Antonio rekindles relationships with old friends, gets to know his nephew, played by the adorable Andre Boxwill, sparks a new love interest, and confronts his father in several emotional scenes about the angst he has harbored for the past decade. 

The film’s fiber lies in Antonio’s reintegration and reacceptance of imperfect Costa Rica, the home he turned his back on when he left for New York. The dialogue is earnest and witty, the characters are collectively charming, and some of the acting, particularly the performances of Ross and Boxwill, is very strong. For the moviegoer familiar with San José, a number of bars, restaurants and landmarks make brief appearances, adding a homegrown element to the cinema experience.

During a press conference at last week’s screening event, Jiménez was asked why San José is portrayed as an ugly, gritty city in the movie. 

“I think it was necessary to portray San José in that way because the film was intended to portray the city as it really is,” Jiménez said. “When you consider San José through the eyes of someone who doesn’t see it every day, that trip from the airport to downtown can be a little traumatic. … I wanted to paint an accurate picture of Costa Rica. Every country and city in the world has its own culture, idiosyncrasies, accent and people. My goal was to accurately portray Costa Rica and everything beautiful and ugly it has to offer.”

Without the support of Costa Rica, “El Regreso” wouldn’t have been possible. Jiménez wrote the script in 2010 but lacked the funds to produce the movie. Using the website, more than 1,700 supporters, mostly from Costa Rica, donated funds toward production of the film (TT, Feb. 22). Overall, Jiménez raised nearly $60,000. 

“El Regreso” opens in Costa Rica fresh off being selected as best international feature film at the New York International Latino Film Festival. The film is Jiménez’s

second full-length film, following “A Ojos Cerrados,” which premiered last year in Costa Rica to critical acclaim. 

Jiménez, who studied film in New York, Montreal and most recently the San Francisco Art Institute, is at the head of the class of a growing crop of national cinema talent. Paz Fábrega, another young Costa Rican director, released the film “Agua Fría de Mar” earlier this year. The film won six international awards.  

“There seems to be a continued growth in interest in film in Costa Rica within this younger generation,” Jiménez said. “There are a lot of very young and very capable directors and actors with good ideas and the talent to create quality films. I think we will continue to see more and more films from national directors.”

As for Jiménez, his studies are complete and he is back in Costa Rica after spending most of the past decade studying film and writing abroad, making his story curiously similar to the one developed in “El Regreso.”

“There are definitely autobiographical references,” Jiménez, 31, told The Tico Times. “I’ve spent most of my adult life living in other countries, and it made my relationship with Costa Rica a little more complicated. I think that was part of the motivation to make this movie.”

El Regreso,’ the soundtrack

Fans of the movie can also enjoy the “El Regreso” soundtrack, featuring national music talent and released under scrappy regional label Papaya Music. Of the CD’s 23 songs, 17 were written by noted Costa Rican artist Federico Miranda, guitarist of rock band Gandhi and creator of the Baula Music label. Other Tico bands featured on the album are The Great Wilderness, Lucho Calavera y la Canalla, Son de Tikizia, Mr. Gone and the Invisibles, Moldo and LePop. The CD is available at Vértigo, Auto Mercado and Librería Internacional stores for a suggested retail price of ₡7,500 ($15).

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