In Manos sucias (Dirty Hands), two bickering brothers — the thirtysomething Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) and the younger, 19-year-old Delio (Cristian James Advincula) — embark on a dangerous sea journey on a rickety boat from their hometown in Colombia up the Pacific coast. Their cargo is an old torpedo filled with cocaine, which is tied to the bottom of their vessel and pulled along beneath the water, invisible to patrolling authorities or hijackers who might board their craft for inspection.
Their destination is a set of coordinates at which they will hand off their cargo, which will be distributed by others in Panama. Accompanying them is a third man, Miguel (Hadder Blandon), an odious racist who berates Delio for his admiration for soccer superstar Pelé because the player, like the brothers, is black.
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Soon, Miguel is out of the picture, a relief to the brothers and the audience alike. Jacobo is an experienced soldier for drug runners who knows what he’s doing. Delio is in over his head on his first assignment, but he’s so poor (with a girlfriend and young son to care for) that desperation overrides his common sense. Besides, all they have to do is get from point A to B, and their bosses will take care of the truly dangerous stuff. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer, of course, is a lot. In his feature debut, director/co-writer Josef Kubota Wladyka gets off to a wobbly start, introducing the two protagonists on their home turf in a somewhat confusing, disjointed manner. But the movie finds its footing — and keeps it — once the brothers set sail. Jacobo is mature, practical and level-headed. Delio, an aspiring rapper, is rebellious and impulsive. They argue and clash, like siblings do, but they also bond in a way they never could back home. Out in the open water, with no one but each other to speak to, they reminisce about their childhoods, share their profound laments and, in one exhilarating scene, break into dance, music momentarily blasting through the movie, providing a brief but much-needed moment of joyous reverie.
Shot on location with occasional setpieces that belie the film’s modest budget, including a thrilling, high-speed chase on railroad carts through the jungle, Manos sucias hurtles toward its conclusion with uncommon brevity and speed (the movie runs a brief but meaty 77 minutes). Along the way, Wladyka touches on issues of racial and class prejudice, although never in the overt, soapboxish way Spike Lee (who lent his name to the picture as executive producer) is wont to do. He also examines the psychological and emotional toll of violence, not just on the victims but those who commit it, too. The stain of spilled blood taints the soul and refuses to wash off.
The closer Jacobo and Delio get to their destination, the deeper your heart sinks — this can’t possibly end well — but there too, Manos sucias surprises, culminating with the expected arrival of horrific savagery but not from the direction you were expecting. The movie may be small and modest, but its imprint is deep and haunting. It’s a journey into a heart of darkness that leaves no one unscarred.
Cast: Cristian James Advincula. Jarlin Martinez, Hadder Blandon, Manuel David Riascos.
Director: Josef Kubota Wladyka.
Screenwriters: Alan Blanco, Josef Kubota Wladyka.
Running time: 77 minutes. In Spanish/Colombian dialect/slang with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.