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Helmet Heads: A Costa Rican absurdist comedy on two wheels

Helmet Heads

This strange little low-budget comedy is not without a few flaws, but it’s hard to hold anything against such an unlikely success story. To begin with, it was made in Costa Rica, a nation with virtually no film industry: only eight feature films were completed in Costa Rica in the 20th century, and just 12 in all of last year. As writer/director Ernesto ‘Neto’ Villalobos describes it, it took five years to complete Helmet Heads, during which many crew members had to keep second jobs. Without any film sets to speak of, the project had to make use of real locations in and around San José, the capital city, sometimes impeding traffic and bringing on the wrath of passing drivers in the process. Finally, it all had to be done on a budget of less than $200,000 US. In spite of all this, the film was not only completed, it had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I had a chance to see it, and to meet and hear from the director and lead actor.

The comedy falls roughly into the category of deadpan comedies which find humour in an intimate observation of the most ordinary individuals or groups, enlarged to the point where tiny quirks, flaws, or preoccupations become bizarre and funny – as in films like Clerks or Napoleon Dynamite. In spite of the difficulty of translating this particular type of comedy via subtitles, the humour in this Spanish language film comes across; the sense of the ludicrous and the point of the joke are always clear, even if verbal subtleties are lost.

The central characters are five San José men who work delivering packages by motorcycle, and who have formed a group friendship and alliance that sees them through a series of personal and professional catastrophes. The importance of friendship was a theme in Villalobos’ 2013 film, All About The Feathers, and it continues to be a starting point and a source of comedy for him. The real motorbike couriers common in Costa Rica, including a friend of the director, inspired the idea of a script centred on characters with that particularly thankless job. Helmet Heads is the English title; in the original Spanish it is called Cascos Indomables – Invincible Helmets, or according to some press information, Raging Helmets – which gives a better idea of the film’s brand of humour, and of the contrast between the central characters’ self-image and their reality.

The main character is Mancha (Arturo Pardo), a simple, good-natured man with a large, disfiguring birthmark on his face (the basis for his nickname, ‘Mancha’, meaning ‘stain’), whose life revolves around three things: his work as courier on his beloved motorbike; his friendship with his fellow motorcycle couriers; and his girlfriend, Clara. Mancha and his colleagues are neither handsome, intelligent, nor resourceful, but they have a kind of affectionate camaraderie that sustains them through bad luck and frequent missteps. Their group social life is both endearing and ridiculous: they meet regularly at “their” spot, a disowned lot on which someone has dumped an old sofa, an item that acts as a sort of mascot which, at one point, is set afire as a dramatic but pointless protest against job redundancies, after which the men continue to gather around the charred skeleton of the same sofa. There they try, and fail abysmally, to solve problems ranging from a malfunctioning motorcycle to a failed romance.

Mancha’s warm and carefree relationship with Clara and their daily al fresco meetings play out against a backdrop of dogs – dozens and dozens of dogs, of every size and breed, who follow the couple when they walk, lounge around near them when they sit beneath a tree, and watch impassively or casually try to investigate when they make love. Clara knows every dog by name, and Mancha takes a polite interest in them, as one would a girlfriend’s workmates. The constant presence of this horde of dogs is left unexplained and largely disregarded for at least the first half of the film; Villalobos prefers to simply let the audience wonder, and the odd scenario is, in fact, amusing in itself – although lead actor Arturo Pardo commented, after the TIFF screening, that doing a sex scene surrounded by dogs is far more perilous than the film would suggest.

The men’s love of their respective motorcycles is likened to a cowboy’s love of his faithful horse; Mancha is shown approaching his own bike alternating with brief images of a waiting steed. The men have given their bikes florid nicknames, grieve when one of them breaks down; Mancha even prefers to have sex with his girlfriend on his stationary motorbike. He sometimes has dreams about riding a galloping steed, dressed in his motorcycle helmet and carrying a courier bag full of envelopes. Their attitude is mockingly displayed when the team ride joyfully through the streets to dramatic rock music, clearly feeling powerful and impressive, rather than like underpaid delivery staff.

The friends’ daily gatherings show a hilariously, if sometimes alarmingly, dysfunctional group of men. One of them is diabetic and regularly collapses from low blood sugar, which the other men casually deal with, never considering that better management is called for. One is almost incoherent with drink much of the time, useful when another man wants someone who will say yes to almost any question. None of them is particularly good at managing his own life, a fact that provides the subject matter for most of their discussions, which produce an abundance of terrible advice. Their natural comradeship is easily conveyed, although interestingly, almost all the actors are amateurs, by the director’s choice. The performances seem to have none of the awkwardness that might be expected from non-actors; if Villalobos has techniques for getting a natural performance from an inexperienced cast, they are working.

As the story develops, Mancha’s ordinary but comfortable life begins to fall apart, one piece at a time. First, his girlfriend tells him she is considering taking a job offer on Horse Island, a place not only at some distance, but which can only be reached by boat. Mancha could not travel there by motorcycle, and would have to leave his bike behind if he followed Clara there. He takes his dilemma to his friends, but the discussion is merely a circular series of comments: Clara is a fine girl; (Mancha agrees), but your motorcycle! (Again, Mancha agrees). He continually postpones making a decision.

The next disaster comes when the delivery service which employs the five men close down without warning. While Mancha rails against fate and refuses to take action, we follow his colleagues as they find other jobs, all of them comically horrible. Mancha finds a job driving an ice cream cart, but makes no sales, as children are frightened of his birthmark. He is then offered a position collecting debts from large, threatening men. Mancha’s life worsens when Clara, disappointed by his uncertainty about joining her on Horse Island, breaks up with him. As he hurries to argue his case with her, he is hit by a car, and emerges from the hospital with his entire head bandaged. He wanders the city in distress, images of horses, on shop signs or posters, quietly appearing in the background wherever he goes – reminding him of the terrible choice between Horse Island and Clara, and his own horse/motorbike. Villalobos allows that Horse Island – a real place at a suitable distance from San José – was chosen partly for the horse imagery it provides.

Helmet Heads offers a happy ending very much in keeping with Mancha’s personality and values. After one final look at his fellow couriers, who have all managed to move on in one way or another, Mancha finally makes a decision, one that works for all concerned.

At Helmet Heads’ world premiere, the director offered some explanation of the film’s more eccentric choices. Stray dogs, he explained, are so common in Costa Rica, he joked that they should be its national animal. There are even stray dog shelters set up in Costa Rica, more or less in the manner of wildlife parks. Villalobos explained that he found these places cinematic. The mystery of Clara’s continually being surrounded by dogs would become clear to Costa Rican audiences – she obviously works at a stray dog shelter – but would work perfectly well as freakish humour to international viewers. Villalobos suggested that Helmet Heads’ humour depended on keeping the action real and ordinary, showing the comedy in everyday life and conversation, but without allowing the dialogue to become flat. He seems to have succeeded; the film finds the humour in the completely ordinary, the foolish, and even the ineffectual.

Ernesto Villalobos is currently working on an “experimental documentary,” one he expects to take at least ten years before it is released; but hopes to produce a more mainstream drama in the foreseeable future. Helmet Heads will be released in Costa Rica shortly, hopefully giving a boost to its slowly growing film industry.