Writer-director Christopher Zalla made his feature debut with 2007's Padre nuestro, a Spanish-language thriller starring Eugenio Derbez that won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize the year it debuted. "Following the success at Sundance, my career kind of went off the rails," the director reflects. "I lost touch with myself and my love for filmmaking. So, I unplugged from the world and took my family to live on a remote lake in Guatemala with the intention, essentially, to start over. It turns out Sergio, the teacher who inspired Radical, had a similar crisis of faith."
Radical is Zalla's true-life dramedy about Sergio Juárez Correa, an elementary teacher in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, whose unorthodox approach to education inspires his students to reach their true potential. "With Radical, I saw a chance to plumb the depths of the emotional bitter-sweetness that is, well, life itself." The film also reunited Zalla with Derbez, who both produced Radical and stars as Sergio.
Radical premiered during this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Festival Favorite Award.
"It was a wonderful full circle moment," Zalla says. "I remember in 2007, after a traumatic week of trying to get our movie noticed and feeling like we had failed, hearing my name called for the Grand Jury Prize at the end of the night. I don't remember my acceptance speech, because it was drowned out by an inner voice: 'You are a fraud. You are a fraud. You are a fraud…' But this time was different.
In the years between Padre nuestro and Radical, "I've become much more comfortable with the notion of a director's 'vision.' I used to consider the concept pretentious and was quite cynical about it, which may have undermined my own efforts," he explains. "Over time, though, I've come to see that having a vision is in fact the essence of the job and my primary purpose."
Below, Zalla shares with A.frame the five films that shaped him into the director he is today, with the caveat that "picking 5 is entirely unfair, because I won't get to mention so many..."
Directed by: Federico Fellini | Written by: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano and Brunello Rondi
Quite simply, 8½ is the movie that opened my eyes to the existence of the auteur, that a movie was the product of someone's voice and vision and effort. I honestly don't know that I'd really understood how a movie came to be beforehand. This is the one that made me want to be a filmmaker. I remember watching it when I was 20, taking a film studies class in college, and then taking a long walk in the rain after. 'I'll never be able to achieve something like this,' I thought, 'but a life spent trying would be a noble pursuit.' I had a calling.
Directed by: Miloš Forman | Written by: Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman
I watched this as a 5 or 6 year old, while living in a group home for differently-physically-and-mentally-abled adults. My mother was the resident director, and so my brother and I lived there for several years. My mom believed in provoking (forcing?) public catharsis as a means of healing, and so often (inadvertently) exposed us to things way too early, particularly films. The realism, but in particular watching McMurphy get shocked and ultimately lobotomized, hit very close to home and was deeply affecting (scarring?), and probably had a lot to do with my vocation.
Jaws, which is a perfect movie, has an honorable mention in the I-was-way-too-young-to see-that-when-I-did-and-it-changed-my-life category, as does Kramer vs. Kramer, which my parents took me to at age 5, because they thought it would help me deal with their divorce.
Written and Directed by: Bae Yong-kyun
Since my teens, I've been intrigued by Buddhism and meditation, specifically. This movie almost feels like a call from my past to myself in the present, beckoning me back to some earlier, simpler self. I think it's the first film that really taught me the power of duration, something that is nearly impossible to pull off today — certainly to this degree — in commercially-financed filmmaking.
But it's also such a great example of the power of filmic metaphor, be it image, editing, even story. There are so many examples in this movie, but the one of the boy who falls into the pool and doesn't know how to swim and struggles mightily, failingly, not to sink... and then relents, and rises to the surface, and slowly floats to the water's edge — it's just sublime.
Directed by: Vittorio De Sica | Written by: Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, Gerardo Guerrieri, and Cesare Zavattini
Simplicity, economy, clarity. There are many movies I consider to be perfect, but Bicycle Thieves might be the most perfect. What I think drama does in general, and film in particular, that no other art does, at least in quite the same way and to the same depths, is to offer us that chance to vicariously experience what someone else does, to go on their journey — one that can offer us epiphany, and catharsis. In this case, we see that drama does not need to be the stuff of titans and kings and captains of industry. The smallest thing can mean everything to a person with nothing.
Written and Directed by: John Cassavetes
The incredible performances, the verité camera and style headline, but it was their effect — the culmination of it all to capture such humanity, such truth — that has made this one of my all-time favorites, and a film that I probably unwittingly try to imitate more frequently than I should. As I sit here, I'm hit with the realization that I'm drawn to stories of children who are confronted with circumstances that are perhaps too mature for their age, that forces them into premature adulthood. Watching those kids put their bodies between their fighting parents felt almost like an invasive, even violating divulgence of truth that Cassavetes was willing to expose/admit.