The 53rd Cartagena International Film Festival opened with quite a bang, or a shot to the head to be more precise. Kicking off a breathless string of more than 290 screenings over the course of seven days, “Roa,” the new film from director Andrés Baiz (“La Cara Oculta”) left a large and star-studded audience in rapturous applause.

The film, which chronicles the last weeks of the life of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán’s assassin, Juan Roa, and the ensuing ‘Bogotazo’ riots that left huge swaths of the capital city in ruins in the 1940s, marks an impressive debut for the young Colombian director and actor Mauricio Puentes, who turns in a powerful and conflicted depiction of Roa in his first feature role.

The cast and director of Roa
The cast and director of Roa after the screening.

President Juan Manuel Santos attended the festival opening for the third year in a row, listing a handful of Oscar-nominated films that had impacted his administration this year (he apparently forced his cabinet to watch “Lincoln”). He also briefly referenced controversial film “Operación E,” arguing that art should never succumb to censorship, before turning to the night’s premiere.

“This film reminds us that nothing good comes from violence,” said the President immediately before the world premiere of “Roa.” “Nothing good comes from violence, and Colombia will be a better nation when peace and tolerance reign.”

Unquestionably, the film deals with some still-relevant issues despite sometimes tedious efforts to remind viewers that it is a period piece. Juan Roa’s motives (and guilt) were never conclusively proven, but the film suggests that forces much larger than anger or spite – perhaps foreign industry leaders or opposing politicians – led him to kill one of Colombia’s most charismatic leaders.

“Roa” opens with a seemingly innocent slice of life in Bogotá’s downtown area, with the titular character caring for an apparently doting family. The only suggestion that something may be awry lies in Juan’s sagging, defeated eyes played by Puentes with varying shades of pathos ranging from sad-sack to death row inmate.

Academy Award-nominated actress Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”) plays Roa’s rather one-dimensional wife, a character who nonetheless serves to humanize a difficult and ambiguous figure and lend an element of tragedy to the story.

As Juan gradually begins to obsess over Gaitán and plot his murder, the film starts to drag somewhat. The inevitability of the outcome works in a sort of Greek tragedy way, but several scenes justifying Roa’s anger seem unnecessary. It might have been more powerful to let his motivations remain less clear.

Arresting in just a handful of scenes, Gaitán, played by TV actor Santiago Rodríguez in his big screen debut, is compellingly slithery. Rodríguez strikes a powerful balance of sincerely populist demagogue and egocentric politico, ensuring that his character is less a martyr than an example of misplaced hope and corruption, a theme all too common in Colombian (and otherwise) politics.

With major financing from national television company RCN, the film occasionally runs the risk of looking a little too ‘telenovela,’ but any aesthetic issues are cleared up in the final scenes, which hammer home one of Colombia’s most important social and political moments with unforgettable clarity.

Lasting little more than a few hours and scarcely acknowledged in a rapidly modernizing present-day Bogotá, the riots shown fleetingly at the film’s end changed the course of the nation.

“There are powerful things at work that I can’t explain, sir,” shouts Roa late in the film. In that sense, not too much has changed in a nation that is anything if not complicated. Of course it also applies to the film itself, which despite a straightforward and sometimes too predictable story, remains surprisingly moving.