Review by Daniel Lima
When making an artistic work meant to reflect or directly address the social ails of the day — climate disaster, income inequality, political corruption — an artist has to ask themselves at some point, “what am I trying to say?” That question isn’t just probing the thesis of the work, it’s asking what particular viewpoint or perspective that particular artist has to offer. Watching Los Iniciados, a dystopian thriller based on the writings of Colombian author Mario Zambrano, that question is constantly on the mind, and the answer is not forthcoming.
The film is set in near-future Bogota, where potable water has become a luxury, and the only rains that fall are acidic. Andres Parra plays a burnt-out reporter investigating the alleged suicide of a former student, running afoul of entrenched powers in the city that will stop at nothing to end his investigation. What he uncovers will prove shocking, provided you haven’t seen any of the movies this is cribbing from.
The rain-soaked urban jungle aesthetic imitates films like Blade Runner and Se7en; the conspiracy concerning water scarcity recalls Chinatown; an investigation washing away the polished veneer of the elite evokes… well, hundreds of detective stories. Perhaps it’s the result of a relatively inexperienced director leaning on their influences, perhaps the source material is also derivative, but the world of Los Iniciados feels more like a collage of older, better works than a fully developed world in its own right. That this is not meant to be a contemporary Bogota, but an imagined reality, makes the failure to craft a distinct identity even more obvious.
Poking holes in the world-building of a given work is more often than not a pedant’s exercise, but lacking anything that sets this world apart visually, one can’t help but examine it textually. Doing so arouses more questions than it answers. How does society function at all if water is so scarce that there’s no known source of fresh water? Is this a worldwide phenomenon, or has this one city depleted its reserves? What is life like for the average person in a city like this? That these questions come so easily speak to a lack of clarity of vision.
That could be excused if the narrative were engrossing, but Los Iniciados is deficient there too. The film has a large ensemble, but the characters are more impressions than fully developed individuals with inner lives, existing only to move the plot along. The only exceptions are the aforementioned beleaguered reporter, and the young mayoral candidate, torn between the expectations of his social class and his sense of duty to the people. Even these are compromised by character decisions that feel less like an organic extension of their characterization and more like an attempt to hit familiar narrative beats.
The investigation itself, lacking a distinct world to explore or characters to grow attached to, fails to generate tension. The stakes feel nonexistent, because nothing that’s at risk feels meaningful; it’s all just imitation or thinly defined. That the actual mystery feels so obvious from the start makes for an even less engaging experience. The film goes through the motions at a pace that never feels plodding, but that is damning with faint praise.
All this ultimately begs that question: what is this movie trying to say? The film sets up a divide between the rich and poor of the city, and it clearly is against the corrosion of democratic institutions and a political class that exists only to serve itself. Commendable as that might be, it’s not insightful, nuanced, or novel, particularly at a time when “eat the rich” narratives are part of the current zeitgeist. Compounding that is the lack of a rich world or dynamic characters to root that shallow commentary in. By the end of the film, it’s hard to discern what exactly anyone was supposed to care about.
In spite of all that, one would be hard-pressed to call this poorly-made, at least on a craft level. The visual language, as derivative as it is, still captures the urban decay well. The performances, particularly from the leads, are all solid. The narrative never feels plodding, it clips along at a steady pace. Purely from a technical perspective, there’s nothing about the movie that is truly objectionable. It's all in service to nothing.
Sadly, Los Incidiados is too vacuous and indebted to better films to justify its own existence. It’s possible that, if one were totally unfamiliar with any of the works it is in conversation with, the film might be more engaging. Still, that person would be far better served watching some of those other works.
Los Iniciados is now streaming on Prime Video.