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Friday November 22, 1996

     Robert Byington's "Shameless," also known as "Sin Verguenza," is a rightly disturbing and venturesome first film of more interest for what it portends for Byington than for what it accomplishes--although that in itself is considerable.
     It has the edgy, shot-from-the-hip, no-budget feel of countless other independent films (it's in black and white), yet leaves you with the feeling that you've experienced a highly personal, unwavering and distinctive vision. As his title suggests, Byington is presenting a view of contemporary society in which it's easy for young people to have no sense of right and wrong. That his three central figures are all or partly of Latino descent and therefore most likely to have had some exposure to Roman Catholicism allows Byington to underline this lack and at times to suggest an unconscious longing for moral certainties.
     They are all students at a Texas university, where Myers (Scott Rhodes), a teaching assistant in a course in architecture, is attracted to Imalia (Natalie Karp) but who diverts him to her seemingly more innocent roommate Arcadio (Carmen Nogales). What evolves is a tenuous, restless triangle, with Myers finding Imalia's chronic case of petty thievery a terrific turn-on.
     Byington captures quite well the fragmented, conflicting sense of cultural identity and occasional bigotry experienced by these three, especially Imalia, who asks: "What is your mother tongue if your mother is Spanish but won't speak it in the house?"
     It is doubtlessly significant that Imalia steals, among countless other items, a cheap plaster Madonna she has a hard time selling for $10. Byington is too smart to excuse Imalia's larcenous behavior on ethnic confusion yet makes it clear that she seems to be living in a moral vacuum. Neither he "explains" Imalia nor does she herself. Instead, Imalia takes a defiant, don't-mess-with-me stance that comes across with a riveting, emphatic quality, thanks to Karp, a most commanding young actress.
     The challenge that "Shameless" and other films similar to it presents is in involving us with people there really is no reason to care much about. That the moody, sardonic "Shameless," which has an exciting soundtrack showcasing Austin bands, is not easily dismissed says something for quality and force of Byington's talent.

Shameless, 1996. Unrated. A Panorama Entertainment release of a King Tomato production. Writer-producer-director Robert Byington. Cinematographer Paul Kloss. Editor Scott Rhodes. Music Los Pinkys plus Cotton Mather, Daniel Johnston, the Reivers, Kronos Quartet. Production designer Mark Bristol. In English with some sequences in unsubtitled Spanish. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. Natalie Karp as Imalia. Scott Rhodes as Myers. Carmen Nogales as Arcadio.

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