When speaking of Costa Rican movies, it’s become the norm to measure the achievements of the latest release by comparing them only to the local movies that came before it. Most of the movies’ shortcomings are justified with the notion that it’s OK for local productions to be mediocre because of the economic struggles their creation implied. “It’s good…for a Costa Rican movie” has become the default reply whenever you ask someone their thoughts on a local film.

While it might be true that the country still doesn’t have the means to proclaim that a “movie industry” exists, audiences and filmmakers alike seem to be forgetting that art is a universal language. If Costa Rican music and literature can live up to universal standards, why should we conform ourselves with anything less than that when it comes to their movies?

Therefore it was absolutely refreshing to watch Francisco González’s “Tr3s Marías”, the very first movie made in Costa Rica that does not adhere to the self-imposed limitations that seem to plague other projects developed in the country. González understands that art, in every form, is meant to be processed beyond the confines of a specific geographic location and should always aim to communicate its message to whoever feels like receiving it. His movie doesn’t have the glossy, made for TV feel of the fantasias set in Costa Rica that we have become used to watching, and effortlessly can be called an entry into the “world cinema” genre.

“Tr3s Marías” is set in a San José that feels both remote and familiar (the city’s name is never uttered in the movie aiding in its purpose of universality) and follows three interconnecting stories whose major dramatic motivations are triggered after the murder of a neighbor. María Victoria (Abril Reyes) is a young woman planning to commit armed robbery with her boyfriend César (Pablo Morales) in order to pay off a debt. María José (Ariadna Retana) is a prostitute trying to support her daughter and her do-no-good mother Esperanza (played with Fellini-esque gusto by Rosibel Carvajal). María Elena (Madeleine Martínez) is a religious woman trying to cope with her violent husband’s (Carlos Alvarado) apathy and her son’s (Erick Calderón) estrangement.

During the course of a single night, the lives of the three title Marías cross paths reminding us not only of the tribulations width= people in Latin America endure on a daily basis, but also of the strange notion that urban expansion has not prevented the world from getting smaller. The film is erected on the foundations of a fantastically written, tightly constructed screenplay that succeeds in fulfilling several purposes, among them providing observations on social injustice and issues generated by violence, drug trafficking and disregard for education. All of this while delivering an entertaining product that complies with basic notions that assume audiences still want to laugh, feel and cry, even while digesting didactic commodities.

González’s screenplay, in particular, stands out because of its remarkable economy. Instead of dwelling on irrelevant details he goes straight to the heart of the matter and suggests the creation of entire backstories for his characters with few words. A recurring joke in the movie is that whenever someone asks someone else for a favor, they instantly reply “don’t ask me for money”. With this seemingly innocuous reply, the filmmaker makes us understand that basic survival is something these people can not take for granted.

His insistence on focusing on his characters becomes even more obvious because of the film’s cinematography, which consists mostly of tight close ups and a recurrent use of Dutch or oblique angles, which provide the movie with extremely rich textures that – like the stories being told – catch us off guard and demand we pay exclusive attention to what’s unfolding onscreen.

Beyond showcasing the film’s thought-out artistry, these tight shots work because they don’t let us become distracted by peripheral elements. For people watching the movie in Costa Rica, “Tr3s Marías” won’t become a checklist of iconic sights or national landmarks, because most of the time they will have no idea where they are.

Because the film doesn’t aim to touch specifically national sensibilities, it might feel like it’s exerting tough love on a society that might not be completely ready to open its eyes to the tragedies and misfortunes of the larger world. This by no means implies that “Tr3s Marías” is in any way a miserabilist take on Costa Rican life, instead it should be seen as a beacon of hope that ought to remind other artists that even if at one point or another they might all have to deal with the painfulness of daily existence, art ,to this day, still remains the one true source of inspiration that violence and injustice can not destroy.

– “Tr3s Marías” opens nationwide on March 23, 2012 and will play in the following theaters: CCM San Pedro, Cinépolis Terramall, Cinépolis Desamparados, Cinemark Escazú, Cinemark del Este and a copy with English subtitles will play in Sala Cine Arte Lindora.

By Jose Solis