A full sensory trip

in 35th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Orlando Santos

The Mexican auteur brings love and passion to a tragic tale set in a paradise full of violence.

 It’s been nine years since we last saw a full feature film from Miss Bala director Gerardo Naranjo. Naranjo is now back with not one, but two movies: his English-language Viena and the Fantomes and the extraordinary Kokoloko, winner of the Premio Mezcal at the Guadalajara International Film Festival and definitely one of the crown cinematic achievements of 2020.

Kokoloko is an exquisite blend of the tendencies that have identified Naranjo´s cinema before: love and passionate conflicts, violence and the brilliant use of visuals and sounds to tell his story. Filmed in a stunning 16mm, Naranjo utilizes the limited space of the film’s setting to juxtapose the paradisical ambience of the small coastal town with the claustrophobic nature in which we encounter its protagonists. Marisol (Alejandra Herrera) y Mundo (Noé Hernández) are involved in an affair that is not approved by Marisol’s possessive and overprotective cousin Mauro (Eduardo Mendizábal). All three embark on a tragic drama of Greek and Shakespearean proportions.

The relationship of Marisol, Mundo and Mauro goes from paradise to hell relatively quickly. It appears that, just minutes in, every character falls into a destructive downward spiral that Naranjo narrates in the most explicit and sensorial way possible through the constrained aspect ratio explosive colours provided by 16mm—elements we’re still able to enjoy when viewing the film in digital form. Naranjo has also mastered the art of narrating by sound and alluding to what we don´t see. It worked brilliantly in Miss Bala and suits Kokoloko perfectly.

An obvious commonality shared by Miss Bala and Kokoloko is their narco-laden milieu, an obsession for Naranjo even since the day he was followed for several blocks by a black pickup truck, an experience he spoke about during a past edition of the Guadalajara International Film Festival. That pickup truck shows up here like a machismo standard in a world where men need to demonstrate their power every day. It also becomes a symbol of hope for Marisol when she looks tirelessly for a pickup truck in which to find Mundo since he told her he bought one so he can take her away.

The film’s narrative is hectic and non-linear and quickly shatters the peace of coastal Oaxaca, a seeming paradise, the soothing yet violent sound of its waves a perfect metaphor for this wicked, furious love triangle that’s imprisoned Marisol.

All of this is beautifully shot by Naranjo and co-cinematographer José Stempa. Rendered with a more personal approach than Naranjo’s previous films, visually, Kokoloko feels like a testimony from some hidden witness observing what is happening between these three people and demonstrations of control and power the cartel and narco culture hold over their community. The aspect ratio sometimes imposes the look of a prison, whether framing the back of a prison truck or Marisol hiding behind some rocks next to the vast sea. The film unfolds in a restricted space, claustrophobic and beautiful, that Marisol seems unable to escape.

The sense of imprisonment feels more palpable when communication between Marisol and Mundo is reduced to text and voice messages, when the latter has to leave for the United States. The film’s images, conveyed through an analogue medium, blend well with the characters’ limited access to technology. The film works as a character study, a style of nonfiction, thanks to its sensorial nature of its narrative.

Naranjo continues to explore new waves to express himself cinematically. Since his early movies, which drew comparisons to those of Alejandro González iñarritu and Carlos Reygadas, due to their innovative or nonlinear nature, he has been able to create his own narrative and continues to build on it. Kokoloko is Naranjo’s best movie so far—and one of the best films of this year.

Orlando Santos
Edited by José Teodoro