Shades of Colour and Sense

in 31st Jerusalem Film Festival

by Eithne O'Neill

This stylish black and white feature debut from Mexico is a subtle coming of age tale. In a moment of mischief, Tomás, a loafing teenager, throws a water-filled balloon down onto the street where it hits a pram complete with baby. Directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios and co-scripted by him and by Gibran Portela, the film kicks off with a fast-moving prologue showing a harassed mother against a ringing of phones and a high-angle shot of a basket of balloons. The establishing image is one of chaos, an objective correlative to the issue facing the youth depicted. How do we rule our lives? The prankster’s mother, a young single parent at her wit’s end, sends her wayward son to Mexico City where his older brother Federico is at the University. Will the mature man teach his sibling manners? The film’s own trendy self-reflexivity begs the question: what sense is there to directing a film in Mexico? You just get a bunch of beggars and shoot.

Interestingly, the difference in colour between the two brothers is a real conversation opener in the film. Tomás is fair-skinned, a blond type called güero in the Mexican slang of the title, while Federico is as dark as his nickname Sombra implies. One character sets off the other in tackling both the personal question concerning Papa and the political issue of difference and respect. The playful quest for identity develops into a leitmotiv. In a dutiful homage to the apparently eternal youth of the French New Wave, the black and white photography reflects the moral distinctions and sense to be made. Tomás reaches the flat where Sombra and his mate Santos seem to have ground to a stand-still through a months-long students’ strike and a shortage of electricity. On screen with its 4: 3 aspect ratio the outlook right now is greyish. Will things look up?

Dependent on money sent by the brothers’ Mama, the guys hang around «in the dark». Sombra neglects his thesis and all indulge in pseudo-philosophical jousts. When did they last pay an electricity bill? Or is their shadowy existence also linked to an unsatisfactory state of services in the concrete jungle of the megalopolis? How about listening to this CD of Dad’s of which Tomás is so fond? The player doesn’t work! Let’s check out the news on television. The set is broken! Sombra regales a neighbour’s kid daughter with fantasy tales in exchange for a share in her family’s supply. As William Butler Yeats wrote in 1920: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold (“The Second Coming”). Ruizpalacios sets his scene on or about the eve of the third millennium. And, as the current is switched on and light is shed on the «subject», things sharpen. Hey presto! In an ancient jalopy, they’re on the road.

From the instant ruin setting, their route leads them to the beleaguered State University. Given their professed indifference to student commitment, these typical anti-heroes are viewed with suspicion by a fellow student at check-point. At the same time, the handling of the relationship between the sexes is deft. Ana, Sombra’s girlfriend, a passionate leader of the Student movement, while stressing that Sombra never mentioned his brother, warmly embraces the newcomer, thus echoing and compensating for his mother’s having sent him into exile. «How’s Mother?» Sombra asks. To which the answer is: «Fine, same as ever, mad». The spectator remembers Mama changing her clothes in feverish haste, revealing a slim young silhouette on which too many demands are made, just as the balloon crashing down is for the other anonymous Mama pushing her pram. Similarly, the girl that Sombra inveigles into letting them have electricity is a touching, dependent figure.

When Ana introduces the milling protesters in the auditorium to a concept of freedom that must include all social strata, she is cheered. This is juxtaposed with a nice irony to Anna showing Tomás around the student workplaces for the Faculty disciplines, the privileged group being, of course, European literature studies and languages. Faithful to the film’s quixotic tone, discovery of the world outside quickens when over a pirate radio news comes of the imminent death of the boys’ paternal idol, rock star and songwriter Epigmenio Cruz. This admiration is what an anonymous father has bequeathed his offspring.

Slight touches and sleight of hand make up the whole. Unlike European films about radical unrest, the lyrical subjectivity of Philippe Garrell, or the zaniness of Karel Reisz’ Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment or again, the surreal contestation of early Polanski, in which the presence of police, hierarchical structure or authority are felt, there is in Ruizpalacios’ film no abiding representation of officialdom or parental supremacy. The father is dead, and the truculent chain-smoking artist is run to ground in a bar, seemingly absorbed in some kind of mental activity. We thought he was dead too! When Sombra courteously requests him to autograph an old cassette recording, the musician throws it to the ground thereby triggering the climax. In an eloquent tribute, the son conjures up his late father’s values, but hardly the person; no doubt, because he’s a universal figure. One way to come to terms with the absence, it is here suggested, is respecting the father’s desire.

Here is Cinema Latino doing its trick, mingling charm, ellipsis and humanity. Güeros conquers the FIPRESCI jury at Jerusalem, after winning at the 2014 Berlinale and at Tribeca. The evil of brick throwing is demonstrated and prevented in a circular return to the balloon incident, and the brothers’ rapprochement goes hand in a hand with an enriched sense of responsibility thanks to the blend of a nostalgic trip and the picaresque trend.

Edited by Yael Shuv