Mexico, Through Two Lenses By Lucy Virgen
by Lucy Virgen
“Habla como albañil”: “He talks like a construction worker.”
In Mexico, this is said of anybody who uses a lot of profanity. The men in Juan Carlos Rulfo’s In the Pit (En el hoyo) live up to this reputation, and through them, director Rulfo has made a faithful portrait of the Mexican working class and everyday life in that country.
Mexico is also the main subject of Luis Estrada’s dramatic feature A Wonderful World (Un Mundo maravilloso), which played the 2006 Rio Film Festival alongside Rulfo’s documentary. A Wonderful World does not even try to create a portrait; its approach is farcical, excessive, funny, yet true in its core. In the Pit , follows a group of workers during the construction of the Periférico´s second deck.
The Periférico is a highway that surrounds Mexico City, and the construction of a second deck was the most controversial project in the last decade. Rulfo was there from foundation until a triumphant trip through the finished road; talking heads entwined with action takes in and out of the construction site result in one of the most poignant views of today’s working class with similarities with Jia Zhang-ke’s Dong .
One of the strongest points of In the Pit is how the director manages to make himself absent, as if he was never there. This makes us feel as if we were privileged witness of this team of construction workers; sometimes they show off for the camera, but most of the time they act naturally; they don’t have time to pretend, or to be nice to the director, much less to any potential audience.
Was it just Rulfo’s luck to select a group with such endearing characters, with stories to tell, with such comfort in front of the camera? Or did the director (and cinematographer) interview several teams of workers in an effort to find the most charismatic ones? The camera’s unpatronizing gaze seems to support the former; it was no small task to gain their trust, to get them not just to participate but to truly be themselves in front of the camera. The film’s sophisticated structure, as complex as the Periférico itself, makes the film transcendental; it goes beyond the team and the construction site to show a working class common to any Latin American country.
Far from didactic and boring, In the Pit is a documentary that pushes its own genre’s envelope; going beyond the conventional workplace study, it follows the workers after their day job; it listens without condescension as they talk about their fears and dreams. Juan Carlos Rulfo may talk like a construction worker, but he shoots like a great filmmaker.
A Wonderful World is the story of Juan Pérez, a homeless man whose drunken rantings are mistaken for protests against globalization. Juan’s life changes several times, as he is manipulated by corporations, the government and the media. At different points of the story he is courted, seduced, menaced, thrilled, pampered, battered, abandoned and ignored until he regains control of his life in a violent way.
As Juan Pérez, Damian Alcazar is the sort of actor who can be appealing without being handsome; nice and naughty in the same scene, he plays up his uncanny resemblance to the 50’s comic actor German Valdéz Tin Tan. Alcazar and director Estrada wanted to make an over-the-top social commentary, subjecting their fictional character to the ups and downs of media treatment. The scary part is that their imagined events seem entirely possible.
A Wonderful World is not a direct follow-up to Estrada’s controversial 1999 film Herod’s Law (La Ley de Herodes), which was banned before its premiere by the then-ruling PRI party, but it does share the same themes. The new work is subtler than Herod’s Law but still very much a farce, making its volatile political statements without fear of government censorship, reaching out to a global audience.
Rather than being targeted specifically to Mexican viewers, A Wonderful World can speak to any disappointed citizen of the world – anyone who feels his life is managed by a corporation, and any social class bruised by neoliberal policies. Which is a wide audience indeed.