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Amat Escalante Heli film

Breakout films from Rio Film Festival

Amidst pre-World Cup turmoil, these cinematic gems stood out at Brazil's top film festival

This year's Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival took place amid a turbulent time for the capital of carnival. As it preps to host the World Cup, public dissatisfaction with government big-spending, poor public services and corruption is reaching fever-pitch. Teachers were out protesting for better conditions, with support from black bloc anarchists against the notoriously less than serene police, near the landmark 20s Odeon cinema. Organisers tackled venue reshuffling headaches to minimise risks (roadie action film Metallica Through the Never had its Odeon screening cancelled, to avoid adding hordes of Brazilian metal fans to the volatile mix).

But despite this, October's festival - the largest in Latin America - pulled off a packed programme of the year's global festival gems and the latest from the region. The film industry showed solidarity with protesters at the closing ceremony, as high-profile guests took to the stage amid cheers with an unfurled banner calling for an end to political corruption and police violence. Our picks from the fest on South America's best new talent are below.  

Heli (2013) 

Mexico's Amat Escalante deservedly won a Best Director nod at Cannes for Heli, an uncompromisingly bleak vision of a young factory worker subsisting in a dead-end hell ruled by drug cartels. When the money-making scheme of his sister and her boyfriend goes awry, Heli becomes caught up in the traumatically severe consequences meted out by a system of corrupt cops and dealers. While the film's technical virtues can't be argued with, the viscerally cruel, nihilistic nature of its violence (think highly flammable substances and the most sensitive parts of the human anatomy) is tough to stomach, but can be taken as a wake-up call on the horrors of this relentless cycle. Like a stripped-back version of Roberto Bolaño's death-scented novel 2666 about a string of homicides in Ciudad Juarez, it's worthy of attention for the iron of constitution, and is set for UK release in Spring 2014.

Some Girls (2013) 

Argentinian director Santiago Palavecino's latest Some Girls, which premiered in Venice, offers up a hauntingly atmospheric nightmare-scape peopled by emotionally troubled women at a country estate. The visions of a psychic girl, a wealthy libertine heiress and the ominous air of suicide all imprint this puzzling, fragmentary film with a dark aura of threat, as the group of females laze by the pool, shoot rifles, and indulge in drugs, while caught up in the remote location's past secrets and persistent trauma. Dream images rush through the elliptical narrative, making it hard to find a foothold in this strange, visually compelling and moodily erotic psychological terrain. 

Il Futuro (2013)

More directly linked to Roberto Bolaño is this adaptation of one of his novels by Chilean director Alicia Scherson. Set in Rome, Il Futuro sees two young Chilean siblings Bianca (Manuela Martelli) and Tomas (Luigi Ciardo) orphaned in a car wreck and left to fend for themselves, jarred and disconnected from the outside world. When two of Tomas's new bodybuilder friends from the gym move themselves into the house, they persuade Bianca to use her sexual allure to win the confidence of a blind, reclusive former action star (Rutger Hauer) so they can rob his sprawling Rococo mansion - but all does not go according to plan. Scherson's approach - surreal, comic and tender by turns - makes for a uniquely appealing film.

Tattoo (2013)

In the Brazilian section, the festival winner was conventional thriller The Wolf At the Door, a morality tale warning against adultery in the vein of Fatal Attraction but with child kidnapping instead of '80s hair and bunny-boiling. Much more vibrant - and a winner of the critics' and audience awards alike - was director Hilton Lacerda's Tattoo, which went all out to turn traditions such as family on their head with its razor-sharp dialogue and defiant performance numbers. Set in 1978 in the last days of military rule, its tale of the romance between a young soldier and the head of a flamboyant anarchist cabaret is a successor of famed Latin American dissent parable Kiss of the Spider Woman and is just as politically conscious, but with a flair all its own.