(Written by Allison Brown)
According to online publication Casa de Campo Living based in the Dominican Republic, where Tribeca selection Carajita originates, the term carajito (or carajita if female) “refers to a very extrovert child or an adult who behaves like a teenager or a little child.” The term is a perfect fit for a title to describe the film’s lead character Sarah (Cecile van Welie), and her decisions made in the film. She lacks the maturity to deal with her actions, and in effect, hurts many people around her.
Carajita begins as a tender drama depicting the unique relationship between this privileged teenage girl, Sarah, and her nanny/housekeeper, Yarisa (Magnolia Nunez). It shows how that connection is affected by their juxtaposed economical class and race, before Carajita slowly evolves into a crime film. Solving the disappearance of Yarisa’s daughter, Mallory (Adelanny Padilla), and portraying how her absence emotionally ripples through her and her employer’s families becomes the central focus. Yarisa’s family feels as if she traded them in for an upgrade once she began working for Laura’s family; she was absent for much of Mallory’s life.
Carajita finds itself somewhere between a straight arthouse film and a more conventional narrative. Directors Silvina Schnicer and Ulises Porra rely on black screens with small, focused areas of light to transition scenes, as well as take advantage of an omnipresent goat metaphor. Although the filmmaker likely intended this symbolism to have a deeper meaning, it doesn’t come across effectively to the audience. Many characters pull odd “silly” or frozen faces throughout the film, some of which are very off-putting. At points, their expressions evoke horror-level imagery, particularly one where a character, when leaving a car, freezes in place, staring blankly for an uncomfortable amount of time as if he is possessed or has had an aneurism. I am not sure if this is intended to have a more profound significance.
There are levels of sociopathy depicted in the way the upper-class family treats their staff that evoke themes from 2019’s Parasite, yet sometimes Carajita is even more explicit in its yearning to disgust the viewer. In one scene, a character recounts an experience from his childhood, where he ordered an absent worker’s boy to get rid of a beehive in a tree. The child suddenly fell, cracked his head open, and died. This malicious character was able to move on without even a mere reaction, return to a school assignment, and made no effort to alert an adult. The film is strongest in its portrayal of classism.
I do have one final gripe that is more with post-production versus the film itself; the contrast between the subtitles and the color in film is sometimes very poor. I missed key dialogue as it was difficult to read. Although Carajita has the best intentions in mind to expose degrading hierarchical class behavior, and some of the film is compelling, a lot of the more creative endeavors may be lost on an average viewer.
Carajita screened at 2022’s Tribeca Film Festival.