A Compelling First Feature

in 38th World Film Festival Montreal

by Jake Howell

A compelling first feature with biting comedy and watchable drama, González is a character study in brooding bitterness that spirals into emotional anarchy, where a young man who can’t pay rent turns to criminal avenues in order to escape poverty and his “life of mediocrity”.

Harold Torres plays the title role (whose full name is “González González”, a recurring joke throughout the film) and his portrayal of an honest, working-class citizen is done so with careful measure. Later in the film, as we see González disappear into a tailspin of desperation, there’s a believable arc with stakes that seem unsurmountable, especially in a country like Mexico where poverty is the norm and escaping it is the exception.

In the opening act of the film, with a little bit of exposition in the form of a voiceover call from a bank (González, it seems, owes some money on his credit card), our protagonist shows up to an interview in a suit and tie; his hair is combed. It’s in this scene that we understand González begins as a decent, reasonably responsible man who is eager for gainful employment, despite his woes with his financial institution, and he plays by the rules. He succeeds, finally landing a job at a call centre for the local evangelical church.

The setting of the church — and what González is paid to do at the call center — is the foundation for the film’s deeply ironic critique of economic disparity, capitalism, and Mexican society. Members of the parish who are losing faith in God or are otherwise in a state of crisis will dial the call center and seek advice; González, on the other end of the line, is employed to reply with basic platitudes about loyalty to the church, believing in the Lord, and — most importantly — how essential it is for these callers to donate to the church, regardless of their own debts or situations. Of course, when González can’t even pay his own bills, it’s understandably taxing on his character to remind callers that they must give back to the church, using an automated voice message to end the call and move on — a process that seems horribly removed from compassion and other so-called Christian values.

In short: this particular church is a pyramid scheme, and a lucrative one at that. The organization is led by a silver-tongued pastor (soundly played by Carlos Bardem) who charms parishioners to dole out pesos like they are handing money to God himself, though the pastor doesn’t believe in anything more than dollar signs. Though this film is fictional, I don’t doubt this is kind of operation is happening globally, and when González sees through the façade of the fleecing, he wants to be a part of it. Watching televised broadcasts of the pastor’s sermons (all of which mention the significance of charity), González imagines himself on the show; in one of the film’s best scenes, an ominous electronic score plays as González sits in his darkened apartment (he’s been evicted) watching and studying the pastor wax about taking matters into your own hands and making life what you want it to be. And so he does just that: after being repeatedly denied his requests to be promoted as a pastor, González chases the girl he’s been eyeing at work, secures a firearm, and sketches a plan to escape his destitution for good — with or without his new girlfriend.

González wouldn’t work without a strong lead, and though he has acted in Mexican productions before, this is a breakout role for Torres. Hecarries the film by more or less never leaving the frame, and he gave a similarly solid performance in another film at the Montreal World Film Festival, Max Zunino’s Open Cages. Torres’ performance is of a certain depression and pessimism, but nonetheless internally nuanced; when he cracks a rare smile, the pressures of his life vanish for a fleeting moment, and his facial expressions are a lightning rod for the economic crisis around him. The film’s climax is one to remember, and the build-up to what becomes “the Mexican Taxi Driver” (as a colleague of mine described it) is rooted in cynicism and merited ambiguity. All told, it is a major achievement to see a film so effectively realized by Christian Díaz Pardo, a debut feature filmmaker, and the talents involved in this production are definitely players to watch down the line. González is cohesive and absorbing from slow-burn start to excellent finish.

Jake Howell