Mexico in Havana

in 35th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

by Ernesto Diezmartínez

The winning streak that Mexican cinema has been having in 2013 continued at the Havana Film Festival. The four Mexican films screened in the international competition were the best, compared with the movies from the rest of the Latin American film industries. The high quality level demonstrated in the Opera Prima section (”The Amazing Catfish”, ”La jaula de oro”, ”Halley”) and the Documentary Section (”Disrupted” and ”Mi amiga Bety”) confirms that the fact that Mexico didn’t return empty-handed from Cuba was merely a logical eventuality.

The weakest Mexican movie in the international competition was ”The Last Call” (Tercera Llamada), Francisco Franco’s second feature film, which was awarded prizes by the Public, the Press and for the Best Actress (the entire female cast) in Guadalajara this year. The film is an outrageous theatrical satire on the rather abrupt montage of “Caligula” by Albert Camus, a piece that Franco himself directed for the theater in 1995 under the name of “Calígula, Probablemente” (Caligula, Probably). The director (Karina Gidi) changes the whole play’s concept with only four weeks left until the premiere and, in a burst of rage, gets rid of her lead actor and replaces him with a young and inexperienced actress (Irene Azuela); the costume designer sleeps with one of the stagehands; an old gay actor (Ricardo Blume) fears forgetting his lines; a hysterical mature actress (Rebeca Jones) can’t stop causing intrigue all around. The farce works most of the time. Nonetheless, there are some unnecessary gags, and some cameos – the one with Silvia Pinal as a powerful foul-mouthed syndicate leader, for instance – are funnier on paper than on the big screen.

A colleague made a singular remark after seeing ”The Last Call” and ”Heli” that both movies seemed to come from two different countries, or even from two different worlds. Of course – the film for which Amat Escalante received the Award for Best Director in Cannes this year is opposite in tone, execution and subject to Francisco Franco’s entertaining theatrical satire. You may remember that ”Heli” provoked the first scandal in Cannes for a certain shocking scene that occurs in the middle of the film. Indeed, this is a moment difficult to forget: before an impassive still camera, we see how a poor guy is tortured in the exact same place where some children, who haven’t left the room, were playing PlayStation some minutes before. Lorenzo Hagerman’s framing is pretty obvious, but no less effective and devastating: in the center, from a slightly low-angle, we see the hanging body of the victim, who is receiving a terrible beating on his back; on the right side, the TV shows one of the video game’s characters wielding a sword; and on the left side, in the background, a lady who does the cooking in a poorly illuminated kitchen gives brief glimpses to see what her children and their friends are doing. At some point, the torturer asks one of the children who are witnessing to stand up and participate in the beating. The kid proceeds without hesitation. Next to him, another asks: “What did this one do?” “I don’t know,” he replies. They are almost bored. From the movie theater’s seat, we can’t be bored: we are horrified.

The scenario is a small town of Guanajuato, where Heli (Armando Espitia), a peaceful worker at an automobile plant, has to face violence without deserving it. The boy, who has barely reached the age of 20, is married to Sabrina (Linda González), with whom he has a newborn baby. In his humble home also lives his dad (Ramón Álvarez) and his younger sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara), a 12-year-old girl who, in secret, is dating a 17-year-old cadet, Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios). The love dream between these two teenagers, who plan to flee to get married, will demolish what little stability – social, economic, professional, and emotional – all of the characters have, after Beto decides to steal two cocaine packages previously confiscated by the “courageous” Mexican forces.

The script, written by Escalante himself and Gabriel Reyes – who appears in the role of a useless police detective – shows us the sad fate of an ordinary and completely helpless Mexican who is lost in the chaos of violence, blood, and the “war against the narco”. It’s a desolate scenario not only because of the precarious state in which Heli and his family survive, but because, as we know well, there aren’t and there won’t be any discernible consequences for all of the atrocities that we see on the screen or the ones that, thank God, we can’t even see. A body is hanged from a bridge, some heads appeared scattered around, someone is tortured by routine and the difference between living or dying is a matter of chance (“It’s your lucky day.”)

Of course, someone could argue that the notorious torture scene wasn’t that necessary. However, if someone is actually familiar with the previous works of Escalante, it is obvious that, for him, those minutes, that framing and those actions are not only necessary: they are strictly fundamental. Beyond the stale resources of “épater la bourgeoisie”, the winner of the Best Director Award in 2013’s Cannes demonstrates his increasing maturity as a filmmaker: he knows where to put the camera, how to move it and how to locate his actors, as we see in the two-and-a-half-minute take in which Sabrina arrives home after the policemen/narcos (or narcos/policemen) have just left. The crane shot with which Hagerman’s camera moves away from the young lady who is prostrated on the doorway is more overwhelming than any other torture scene: it’s the sad confirmation that when chaos erupts, we’re all alone.

The other two Mexican films in the international competition were very different from ”Heli”, yet similar to one another, at least in their topic: teenage sexual awakening. Aarón Fernández’s ”The Empty Hours” (Las horas muertas) is built around a very well-known dramatic plot: the relationship between a young man who, within a short time, grows and matures with the aid of an older woman. Sebastián (Kristyan Ferrer), a 17-year-old boy, is called to mind a small motel (“ten rooms; well, nine; all alike”) on the road from Nautla to Poza Rica. The owner, his uncle, goes to Jalapa for 15 days, maybe more, to get some medical tests, so he leaves the inn in the hands of the young boy who, sooner or later, will learn to deal even with the smallest of problems: there’s no maid because no good woman wants to work in that place, a kid is stealing the coconuts from the palm trees in the motel, and sometimes Sebastián hears weird noises that seem to come from a room that is not in use. It’s precisely this motel that is the favorite place of the attractive Miranda (Adriana Paz, Best Actress in Morelia this year), who has trysts in one of the rooms with her lover (Sergio Lasgón). Since the man is always late, beautiful and independent Miranda starts talking with Sebastián, who she sees as a kind of friend or younger brother, although the boy, of course, desires something really different. The story’s simplicity is offset by Javier Morón’s beautiful photography, the immaculate direction of the actors and the tone that Fernandez imposes on his film. The obvious is never emphasized – Miranda’s boredom, Sebastián’s hormonal confusion – and the ending, is in itself exemplary in his rigorous serenity. Why make so much drama?

Certainly, there is no drama in what was – at least in my view – the best Mexican film in competition: Fernando Eimbcke’s ”Club Sandwich”. Paloma (María Renée Prudencio), a still attractive woman, and Héctor (Lucio Giménez Cacho Goded), her teenage son, are spending the weekend in a little hotel in Oaxaca. It’s low season and there’s nobody around. Truth be told, they don’t need anybody else: they sunbathe next to the pool, put on some sunscreen, eat big “club sandwiches”, talk nonsense (they discuss if Prince is sexy or not, for example) and, of course, they watch TV documentaries about nature. This idyllic mother-son equilibrium breaks down with the arrival of Jazmín (Danae Reynaud Romero), an attractive 16-year-old girl who catches Héctor’s attention. Paloma’s multiple reactions as she sees her only son getting out of her hands under the influence of the seductive young lady are equally funny and pathetic. Prudencio surprises us as a talented comic actress while Eimbcke, as usual, is a master of framing in those still takes of two characters that are invaded by a third one, and of the creation of unforgettable scenes, like the “Play of Punishment” one at the end of the film. Now that I think about it, in that scene there’s a bit of drama. But it is not tragedy, nor something to cry about. Héctor is growing up, Paloma knows it, and even if she doesn’t like it, she accepts it. Such is life.

Edited by Carmen Gray