Bolivia is set in a small caf in Buenos Aires, the kind of place that should have carved above the door: "Abandon hope, all ye that enter." Frequented by cab drivers and redolent with cigarette smoke and broiling fat, in the U.S. it would be called "The Terminal Caf." Enrique (Enrique Liporace), the proprietor, employs illegal aliens for a few dollars a day. Freddy (Freddy Flores), his new hire, is a Bolivian who lost his job when authorities burned the coca fields where he worked. Equally exploited, Rosa (Rosa Sánchez), the waitress, an outsider by virtue of her mixed blood--she's Argentinean and Paraguayan--must gently rebuff Enrique's advances in order to keep her job. Through Enrique, Freddy and the unfortunate habitus of this inferno, like the malevolent Oso (Oscar Bertea) whose insolvency drives him to violence, writer-director Adrián Caetano depicts the ignominies of Latin America's economic crisis.

Caetano, Uruguayan by birth, has lived half of his life in Argentina, most recently in Buenos Aires. Bolivia is his feature debut, although the writer-director co-directed Pizza, Birra, Faso (1997), a critically acclaimed film about three teenage thieves, and several shorts including La Expresižn del Deseo (2001), an uncompromising look at two warring street gangs. Like the short, Bolivia is shot in black-and-white, and in its gritty, social-realist veneer, it appears devoid of sentimentality and of redemption. Every sin, every human weakness, every inanition of the spirit finds expression in the vitiated atmosphere of Bolivia's cafe, but no one is the better for it. Xenophobia, homophobia and despair are as palpable as the sausage sandwiches and the cups of espresso Enrique serves.

At first, the patrons tolerate Enrique's hard-nosed management--the food is cheap and Enrique runs tabs--but they resent Freddy who, in their estimation, got his job at the expense of a native Argentinean. Freddy does not suffer their barbs in silence, nor does Caetano portray him as an object of sympathy. Freddy is from Bolivia, second only to Peru in the production of coca leaf, which requires pesticides that are polluting Latin America's rivers and forests. Freddy may be an unwitting pawn in the larger machine of Latin America's cocaine-based economies, and Enrique a businessman trying to make ends meet in a country where double-digit inflation has devastated the poor and the middle-class, but they're not innocents, not men who inspire pathos.

Only Rosa, who exists outside the men's orbit, elicits any empathy; she fends for herself in a culture where women, at least symbolically, were once the spiritual center. Rosa isn't virginal, but neither does she participate in the male cycle of despair and violence; when she invites Freddy to go dancing, she's motivated by loneliness. Freddy is the only man in her social milieu with some remnant of familial stability--he has a wife and children back in Bolivia--the underpinning of Latino culture that, in one sense, serves as an aegis for women. Rosa is the keystone in Caetano's depiction of spiritual poverty; if women provide only temporary relief from despair, as Rosa does for Freddy, or they're left behind, like Freddy's wife, then we are all one step away from annihilation. It is the obsequious Rosa--and not the seething Oso--who gives Caetano's film its chilling sense of inexorable decline.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Latin cinema will see in La Expresižn del Deseo the influence of Luis Bu˜uel's Los Olvidados, and in Bolivia, the imprimatur of Bu˜uel's The Exterminating Angel. Caetano is not a surrealist, but in the frustrated desires of his characters, and in their confinement in the caf--like Bu˜uel's characters trapped in the castle dining room--the Spanish master enjoys a reincarnation of sorts. The stark visual beauty of Caetano's Bolivia, however, is the director's own. He shot the film (in 16mm) intermittently over three years because he lacked funding, yet the symmetry he achieves, from Freddy's portentous arrival to the story's violent denouement, is indicative of a sublime cinematic sensibility. Sadly, Bolivia is to have only a week's run at New York's Film Forum, but it is the first theatrical release, and an auspicious one at that, for Cinema Tropical, a company dedicated to promoting Latin American cinema.

--Maria Garcia