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  Secrets of the Andes some secrets should stay buried
Year: 1998
Director: Alejandro Azzano
Stars: Camilla Belle, Nancy Allen, David Keith, John Rhys-Davies, Roshan Seth, Jerry Stiller, Leandro Lopez
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: Mischievous, but misunderstood youngster, Diana (Camilla Belle) and her mother Brenda (Nancy Allen) travel from their home in New York City to Argentina to visit Diana’s estranged father, Brooks Willings (David Keith). An archaeologist, Brooks is desperate to uncover a legendary, mystical talisman, but his presence angers local villagers who believe him responsible for the plague killing their animals. Things get worse when a devious sorcerer causes Brooks to accidentally destroy the statue of the village’s patron saint, further enraging local priest, Father Claver (John Rhys-Davies) who has already taken against Diana. But local mystics foresaw Diana’s arrival. The little girl befriends the wise Don Benito (Roshan Seth) and discovers she has magical powers. Together with young sculptor Lucho (Leandro Lopez), they set out on a spiritual journey to recover the talisman.

This curious, children’s movie features a bright-eyed, pixyish lead in Camilla Belle, an actress now known from 10,000 B.C. (2008) and the remake of When a Stranger Calls (2006). Diana is a boisterous, troubled, child heroine whose mischief ranges from sticking gum everywhere (and on everybody), picking pockets, and - most memorably - hiding inside a confessional to lecture a weepy, repentant parishioner. Her amusing antics briefly enliven a muddled, meandering narrative that frustratingly fails to engage.

One of only two movies directed by Argentinean, Alejandro Azzano, Secret of the Andes features potentially interesting elements. The intertwining of pagan culture with Christianity endemic to South America, as villagers wait for their saint to restore peace after the chaos of carnival. Scenes where Camilla and friends, under Don Benito’s tutelage, enter a trancelike state for out of body experiences recall Alan Garner’s metaphysical, children’s fiction like The Weirdstone of Bringshamen. When the sorcerer dabbles in blood sacrifice and angry locals hang a pig’s head over Brooks’ front door, the film threatens to become a kiddie version of The Believers (1987). However, Azzano fumbles his storytelling. After a staid first fifteen minutes (centred mostly around Jerry Stiller as Diana’s psychotherapist), we suddenly jump to Argentina where the film stumbles awkwardly around vague details (Don Benito’s magical flute-playing; the evil sorcerer’s motivation; statues morphing into demons; Diana’s role in an ancient prophecy) that will surely confuse the target audience.

Grownups here are all diffident and dislikeable. Nancy Allen whines: “Let’s go home”, seemingly every five minutes. John Rhys-Davies’ whiskey-swigging, hot-tempered priest is a most curious character to find in a children’s movie. Early on he threatens to pull Diana’s “teeth out with a red hot poker” (and this before she’s even done anything!). The film doesn’t paint an overly flattering portrait of rural Argentina either with dishonest merchants, knife-wielding thugs, and a populace ruled by superstition. Shot in a flat, TV movie style that fails to evoke any magic, what should have been a evocative children’s fantasy is instead a ponderous bore. It features the odd postscript: “No animals were harmed making this motion picture. Humans were treated almost as well as animals.”
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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