Comparative Review: Sand Dollars (Cárdenas & Guzmán, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

I mentioned in my review of Murder in Pacot that I would soon be comparing it to another film from this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival: Sand Dollars. Set in neighboring Dominican Republic, Sand Dollars tells the story of Noeli (Yanet Mojica), a shrewd young Dominican woman who cultivates an affair with a wealthy elderly French tourist named Anne (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of the famous Charlie Chaplin). Like Murder in Pacot‘s Andrémise, Noeli strings her white lover along in the hopes of scoring some cash, a step up in society, and, eventually, a free ride out of her dead-end life in the Caribbean and into the land of opportunity–in both cases, France. In other parallels, Noeli, too, has a “real” boyfriend on the side–one of her countrymen–whom she tells Anne, with thinly disguised insolence, is her “brother.”

The world of Sand Dollars is chock full of self-indulgent white Westerners who come to the Dominican Republic for beautiful beaches, warm weather, and native love. In their comfortable surroundings, these expats trade stories, sympathies, and hope about their local lovers. The film directs its piercing gaze at these foreigners, as if to ask, Are they contemptible? Failures at home, do they come here to buy a second (or third or fourth) chance at life? Are they powerful or pathetic or both? And yet, despite their harsh line of questioning, filmmakers Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán do not convict these visitors. Anne may be pitiable, but we do pity her. She is old, desperate, lonely, willfully credulous–not, however, a bad woman.

What of Noeli then? Noeli takes advantage, but she, too, is trapped. The difference between her and Anne is that Noeli is trapped by her circumstances and not by unrequited love; she doesn’t have the luxury for such sentiment. Of course, with that realization, one is inclined once more to take a hard look at Anne and her set. Then again, they are not to blame–not exactly, at least. If our attitude toward the white expats is somewhat schizophrenic, it is only because we are reflecting Noeli’s own ambivalence.

And that is where Sand Dollars exceeds Murder in Pacot. While they both pose similar questions, Sand Dollars gives its characters fuller expression. They are individuals with individuals’ foibles, weaknesses that are both recognizable and understandable. Murder in Pacot, despite its explosiveness, remains rather hollow at the core–rhetoric disguised as art.

But of course there are more differences than similarities between the two films. Murder in Pacot explores the interplay of class and race dynamics; Sand Dollars focuses solely on the relationship between Noeli and Anne. Murder in Pacot plays like an allegory, Sand Dollars like a traditional narrative. One is a thriller, the other a drama, etc., etc., etc. I understand all of that, but if I had to pick the more successful film? Sand Dollars all the way.