Greatest Hits

in 34th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by José Antonio Teodoro

Greatest Hits (Los major estemas) commences with scenes of Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez) hard at work, or rather preparing for work, first in the shower, then at the kitchen table with Teresa (Teresa Sanchez), his mother, over a sandwich made by Teresa, a small reward for his labours. He speaks aloud a sequence of song titlesthat would doubtlessly be familiar to just aboutanyone who grew up listening to popular Latin American ballads. Gabino’s recitation of these titles is, it would seem, anessential discipline required of all thosewho harbor ambitions of successfully hawking homemade CDs to Mexico City’s millions ofsubterranean commuters. (Such vendors, typically carrying a backpack with built-in CD player and speakers to prove the functionality of their product, hopping from train to train at every station, are a ubiquitous feature of the teeming capital’s labyrinthine and typically jam-packed metro system.) The seriousness and pained concentration Gabino applies to these recitations is a source of persistent humor throughout Greatest Hits, which for all its structural eccentricities and emotional complexities is still at heart a comedy about broken families, deadbeat dads, and, that most universal of themes, work, or at least the desire for work, though, curiously, the film never actually enters a single workplace, save that of Gabino’s girlfriend Luisa (Luisa Pardo). But this seriousness and concentration is also an indicator of the degree to which repetition and the exercising of memory have become key motifs for Nicolás Pereda, the film’s author. Indeed, these motifs, along with several others, most notably variations on mother/son relationships, with each variation embodied by Sanchez and Rodriguez, have accumulated so conspicuously over the course of Pereda’s work that I’m only half-joking when I say that the title of Pereda’s latest could almost be considered an acknowledgement of a certain tautological streak within the young Mexican-Canadian writer-director-editor’s already ample filmography – consider, for example, the repeated recitation of a letter in Pereda’s 2010 film Summer of Goliath (Verano de Goliat). This is observation, not criticism: Pereda’s films are unusually, at times sublimely, of a piece, each one building on the assets of its predecessor in a rigorously organic fashion. Few contemporary filmmakers have crafted a body of work so rewarding when seen in sequence, and Greatest Hits, winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the 34th Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, is arguably the fullest realization of the most compelling characteristics of Pereda’s films thus far.

Greatest Hits is also something completely new for Pereda, and something extremely rare in any body of work: a disarming fusion, or grafting, or intertwining, of fiction and documentary, with one form slipping into the other and then back again. Gabino and Teresa’s everyday lives as cohabitating mother and adult son, with occasional visits from Luisa, who makes amusingly unsuccessful attempts to ingratiate herself to Teresa, are interrupted by the return of Emilio (José Rodríguez Lopez), Gabino’s estranged father and Teresa’s estranged husband. A seemingly unassuming presence, Emilio shows up ostensibly just looking for a place to crash for a few days, but his repeated inquiries into Gabino and Teresa’s lives, along with his suggestions that Gabino join him in what he’s certain is a sure-fire business venture, some sort of independent sales work for an unnamed company that bears a close resemblance to Herbal Life, imply that in actuality Emilio has returned with the hope of repairing his family. With time, and with the aid of a strange pair of nearly identical late-night father/son-in-underpants-on-the-sofa chats, Emilio seems to forgo or temporarily put aside his sales aspirations in favor of following in his son’s footsteps, of becoming, like Gabino, a “greatest hits” CD subway vendor. A wonderful scene finds Emilio stationed in Teresa and Gabino’s living room, wearing the portable stereo-backpack and attempting to recite the litany of song titles earlier intoned by Gabino: You’ll Forget Me, You Are All-woman, I Live for Her, Where Did Our Love Go?, In the Prison of Your Skin, I Lost My Chance, I’ll Never Forget You… Emilio doesn’t make a very convincing salesman but his efforts are endearing, and at this point we become aware, if we were not already, of the other purpose of these song titles: they are declarations of love, or laments of loss.

The fractured family unit seems to be finding some new way of cohering, however clumsily. But then there comes a point when Pereda himself intervenes in the narrative, creating a new kind of fracture, or fissure, or rupture, or dismantling. We hear Pereda’s voice begin to ask deeply personal questions of his characters, or his actors, or his character/actors, and we see the actors pause, absorb this shift – did they know this was going to happen? – and reply with what feels like arresting frankness. A sort of mirror has been passed through, and when Gabino and Teresa re-emerge from this transitional mirror place Emilio is replaced by a new version of Gabino’s estranged father and Teresa’s estranged husband, this one played by Luis Rodríguez, a very different figure, with a huskier voice, burly instead of slight, a rock and roller, more macho and less apologetic for his transgressions, sporting thong underwear instead of jockey shorts in yet another late-night father/son-in-underpants-on-the-sofa chat. From what ontological plain did this new father emerge? Is it the same one from which Buñuel summoned his alternate Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire? The question I keep asking myself is whether or not one of these Emilios is the “real,” or the “documentary” estranged father or estranged husband. Yet, as though part of an elaborate act of sabotage against any such spectatorial suppositions, both Emilios are played by actors whose patronymic is Rodríguez. Are either related to Pereda’s lead? Or both? Or neither? I know Pereda, so I suppose I could just ask him, but I don’t, perhaps because I prefer to linger in the liminal space of confusion regarding fact and fiction that Greatest Hits has so intricately constructed for us to wander through. In the film’s latter half, as though in response to the disorientation imposed by the aforementioned transitional mirror-passage moment, the points of contention between Teresa and Emilio, or, shall we say, Teresa and Emilio II, are more directly and unnervingly hashed out, and, whether because of the shift in tone prompted by the aforementioned transitional moment or whether because, just maybe, Emilio II really is Sanchez’s real-life ex, the emotions that rise to the surface during these confrontations feel more heated, more immediate, more “real” or “documentary.” Thus our willingness as spectators to linger in this liminal space of confusion is in a sense rewarded with a dose of arrestingly, seemingly genuine feeling, andwhat feel very much like real tears.

Yet from this point Greatest Hits embarks on what could be seen as a whole other sort of journey of familial reconciliation/diegetic disorientation altogether, a long, chatty sequence shared only by Gabino and Emilio II in Emilio II’s apartment, or storage space, or man cave, a purely masculine denouement that does nothing to resolve the conflicts, diegetic or formal, that arose in the preceding 80 minutes or so. This closing sequence, which drifts so far from the film’s accumulated situations and proposals, seems to be the part of Greatest Hits that most people have trouble with. Me? After a second viewing especially, I found that I kind of cherished it, as a vestibule from which to ease out of the film’s thorny psychic terrain, as a way of imagining how life goes on, despite unresolvable grievances, for at least some of these characters, and as a way of feeling Pereda himself casting his creative gaze out toward new terrain. Six features and one short into his still-young career, Pereda, himself still very young, seems like he could go anywhere now. Greatest Hits feels like the end of a cycle: the son has made peace with the father, real life has shaken hands with fiction. And indeed, Pereda is currently at work on a very different project, something grounded in his second home of Canada instead of Mexico, the setting of all his preceding films. I very much look forward to seeing where he goes next, and I feel very comfortable not having any idea what to expect.