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El Cielo Rojo (2008) tells the story of Manuel and his friends who are newly graduated with no direction. They are content doing nothing and going on a road trip, but when Manuel’s grandfather dies they realize they need to regroup and find out what is really important in life.
The 2006 Costa Rican Elections
The 1970s and 80s saw a rise in instability within the region so Costa Rica realized the best way to stay peaceful was to ally itself even more with the United States. Costa Rica began receiving a lot of US aid and adopted a lot of neoliberal policies. Unlike the 1948 generation that was reform-minded and built many public institutions, these institutions were given less importance as private companies came in. The nature of the economy at this time was also changing.
For better or worse, ecotourism was becoming one of the main industries and attracted many foreigners to explore a more humane form of tourism, but this increase in foreign settlements has also led to more deforestation. Within the political world, the only modern party in the country was the PLN which was run by Figueres’ son. This was only changed when the PUSC came in in 1983 under the leadership of Calderon’s son. By the time the 2006 elections came around, the Costa Rican people felt a general malaise for the government. Both the PUSC and the PLN had recent corruption scandals.
In 2004, Calderon and the PUSC president, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, were detained on charges of accepting payments in exchange for using their influence to benefit government contractors. Rodriguez was forced to resign and flee the country. Because of this, the PUSC vote in 2006 only amounted to 3.5%. Figueres’ son was also accused of receiving payments in exchange for lobbying for ICE, the Costa Rican electric company. The 2006 election became a fight between the PLN and the PAC, a party to the left of the PLN. The candidate for PAC, Otton Solis, vowed that he would not make empty promises which he saw as proof of corruption. He also vowed not to vote for a new and all-encompassing free trade agreement. The PLN won but were only able to defeat the PAC by 18,000 votes and most people didn’t even show up to vote. They had a record low voter turnout of just 35%. This showed that most people didn’t like their options and those who were interested were very torn on the issue of free trade. In April 2007, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal ruled that there should be a referendum on the treaty. The treaty was ratified, but there are doubts about the democratic nature of the decision. Costa Rica continued on its neoliberal path despite the reform-oriented nature of its 1948 forefathers.
The University Question
Throughout the film, Manuel is plagued by the same questions. All around him people keep asking, “What are you going to study?” Manuel is certainly not alone in his indecisiveness. At that time in Costa Rica, public education was seeing a lull in attendance. In 2002, ⅓ of the students enrolled in secondary school would go on to eventually graduate and in 2006 some schools saw so few students at the start of the school year that they were forced to close. These statistics are reflected in the boys’ apathy to school. Manuel cannot stand any talk about university or his future. When the boys address their plans for the future, it always takes place in a fantasy world that suddenly turns terribly mundane. One of the boys talks about wanting to get straight in the workplace and make money. This is followed by a montage of high pace work scenes with dollar signs coming out of the screen only to zoom out and show he is just working in one of the many call centers of the country. Another friend has dreams of being a politician. The scenes show him charging through the streets in a superhero costume only to be followed by a scene of him fixing a pothole in costume. For these boys, the future seems unreal or worse: boring. It isn’t until Manuel hears about his grandfather’s death that they begin to think about the future and Manuel decides what he wants to study, but even then sirens prevent the audience from hearing what exactly that is. The future remains a mystery.
The Costa Rican Road Movie
In many ways, El Cielo Rojo is very similar to the Mexican classic, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Both follow recent high school graduates who have an apathy to their future and go on a road trip set in the backdrop of a very important election in their country. However, director Miguel Gomez does not want his protagonists to remain complacent and oblivious to their surroundings. Tenoch and Julio in Y Tu Mama Tambien seem not to care at all about the political uprisings happening right outside their car. Manuel and his friends are different. After they get back from their trip, they put fireworks under a politician’s car in an act of defiance. Manuel also serves as a foil to Tenoch. In Y Tu Mama Tambien, Tenoch often says he wants to be a writer but ends up just studying economics and abandoning writing. Manuel on the other hand decides to start writing about his experiences. These boys also remain friends unlike the characters of Y Tu Mama Tambien. The director wants to show a more positive view of the young people of Costa Rica. When pressed they can find a way out by sticking together and meeting their obstacles head-on.