The Mexicans Visit La Habana

in 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana

by Augusto Cruz

The Mexican films at this year’s festival were promising but conventional and disappointing. Narrative structure and visuals were weak, directors made the mistake of trying to support drama with anecdotes, scripts were poorly developed, themes were dispersed, and there were long meaningless sequences. These characteristics were present in most of the Mexican films, except for two.

Rodrigo Pla’s A Monster with a Thousand Heads (Un monstruo de mil cabezas) is efficiently directed, with an outstanding lead performance by Jana Raluy (who won the Coral Award for best actress) and a topic which may remind us of similar films, such as Nick Cassavetes’ John Q (2002). Sonia Bonet (Raluy) fights for insurance to cover her husband’s medicine; this will result in a series of desperate acts which expose the corruption and dark interests of corporations such as the insurance business. Pla portrays the fight of the human against big business, but this film – based on Laura Santollo’s novel – doesn’t explore every possibility, and ends on an unfortunate last line in the middle of a funeral, leaving us with the feeling of a TV movie.

David Pablos’ The Chosen Ones (Las elegidas) exposes the trafficking of women across the Mexican border: their seduction, kidnapping and integration into a prostitution ring which is run as a thriving family business. Ulises seduces fourteen-year-old Sofía for his family’s prostitution racket, but when he changes his mind and wants to release her, his father demands he deliver another girl as replacement. Pablos, a screenwriter as well as a director, has his character face a real dramatic conflict. He avoids the common device of making the prostitution too explicit, using ingenious ways to suggest sexual encounters (Sofía just stares at her clients as the sound is turned off and then panting noises are heard.) The film depicts a cruel world, in which victims remain trapped by threats against their families and the police protect criminals. However, there were two details which detracted from the film’s quality: the disparity between the amateur and professional actors, and some subplots which are never resolved – most likely a problem in the editing.

I found the other Mexican films this year poorly developed and mediocre. Hernández Cordón’s I Promise You Anarchy (Te prometo anarquía) describes the relationship between two men who sell their families and friends to drug dealers. This potentially interesting topic is ruined by uneven performances, a failed storyline, and an ending in the worst Hollywood tradition. Surprisingly, the film received two awards, for best script and best male performance for the two leads, Diego Calva and Eduardo Eliseo Martinez.

Matias Meyer’s Yo is based on a Le Clezio short story about a man with limited mental skills who helps out at his mother’s restaurant. The arrival of an eleven-year-old girl brightens his lonely existence. Nothing much seems to happen, so that the film is one long digression, albeit with a memorable lead performance.

¡Que viva la música!, a co-production between Mexico and Colombia, is based on Andrés Caicedo’s novel. It is the least noteworthy of the festival’s official selection of features. An upper-class Colombian teenager leaves her home to party and have wild nights in the city with alcohol and drugs. Director Carlos Moreno fails to articulate the story with fluency; there is a lack of dramatic structure, with many long and useless passages taken from the novel. Only Paulina Davila’s performance is good – she manages to create a character with a liberal sexuality who is passionate about music, living on the edge and unconcerned by the future. Otherwise, this film is a visual waste – a repetitive and tiring party that goes on for 102 minutes.

The selection of short and medium-length films from Mexico ranged from fair to bleak. Roberto Fiesco’s Trémulo (2015) shows a day in the life of Carlos, who works in a barbershop, cleaning at nights. Julio, a soldier who needs a haircut, asks Carlos to open the shop after it has closed for the night. What follows is a revealing, funny and suggestive night for the two young men. Fiesco succeeds at visually constructing and developing the narrative, in which feelings move from friendship to disappointment to love with a dramatic fluency. However, he also falls for the temptation of showing the inevitable kiss between Carlos and Julio. If he had ended the film before the predictable kiss, this could have been a well-executed short film.

Julián Stubbs’ The Last Night of Silverio Cruz tells the story of a revolutionary police officer who commits a terrible crime and runs away to look for his wife. The story moves along the lines of a classic western, presenting the image of a solitary criminal who seeks to erase his crimes by committing one more – this time, with the approval of the authorities. Stubbs creates dramatic, tense scenes of men in the silence of battle. But he resolves his story by taking the easy way out: ending with a highly questionable and predictable triumph of love, which passes over the taking of innocent lives.

Edgar Nito’s Masacre en San José is based on a true story of the drug war in Mexico. Don Alejo, a ranch owner and expert hunter, is requested by the narcos to leave and hand over his ranch. He refuses, and using his experience, is able to kill many of the narcos, showing the strength of an army instead of just one man. Nito clearly knows how to tell a story precisely and competently – however, those same attributes show up his narrative limitations. There is impersonality, poor dramatization, and a lack of compelling characters. The film’s ending shows the influence of Tarantino – it is far from visually realistic and reduces the film to a recreation of a newspaper report.

Mariana Arriaga’s En defensa propia is about a doctor who receives a call from a neighbor who has shot a thief at home. The neighbor has decisions to make: whether to call the police and face responsibility for shooting the thief, or allow the thief to die and dispose of the body. Arriaga seems to have received more help than she could ever need from her father Guillermo, who is an outstanding screenwriter (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), but in this case attempts to get gold out of a silver mine in adapting his stories to the screen. En defensa propia is well-shot but poorly written and directed. Mariana Arriaga doesn’t a find a reason to tell this story, which is devoid of dramatic conflict and originality. Emilio Echeverria overacts, and there is an unfortunate and inconsequential final sentence which should never have been filmed. I can’t understand why this film was chosen for the Horizons section at Venice. Mariana Arriaga is a promising filmmaker, but the challenge will be for her to find stories which enable her to grow, gaining the creative freedom for new projects.

In the section for Latin American films about indigenous cultures, Teresa Camou’s Sunú is a documentary about the threats to maize production in the Mexican countryside. Maize farming has huge cultural meaning for the people of this region. Camou talks to farmers who want to continue the work of their ancestors, but are threatened by lack of support from the government and the prospect of imported maize. These tales of ordinary people are interspersed with those of the big production companies, who are solely focused on reducing cost. Camou shows her experience with social groups, knowing how to articulate a narrative without telling us what we can see for ourselves. She also knows when and how to press buttons, showing respect for the world of the farmers for whom maize is a vital source of survival. They do not want to give up what they have done for generations, but they are also aware that times are changing. A simple and endearing philosophy is expressed: Mexico is actually a rich country, but we are poor because we buy things instead of manufacturing them. This interesting documentary has been shown in Turkey, Kurdistan, Scotland, Portugal and India, but it has not received enough attention from the large film festivals in Mexico. It is proof of what can be done when a film goes beyond anecdotes to reveal the human condition.

Edited by Lesley Chow