Año uña (2007)

Año uña uses photographs to tell the story of a sweet but ultimately impractical friendship between a US college student and a Mexican teenager in Mexico City.

Año uña, Year of the NailMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriter:
Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Jonás Cuarón

Running time: 80 minutes

Alternate title: The Year of the Nail

In Jonás Cuarón’s simple but attentive fiction film début, Año uña (The Year of the Nail), we find ourselves rooting for a 14-year-old boy in his quest to be intimate with a female college student. Perhaps it’s because of the genuine likability of this naïve young boy, a horny Mexican teenager named Diego (played by Cuarón’s real-life half-brother, Diego Cataño), or because of the leisurely conversations between him and his crush or because both are in on the game.

Made up entirely of still photographs (around half of them in black-and-white), the film’s form is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. But although the two works are visually similar, at least initially, they have little in common beyond telling their stories at a much more sputtering pace than we’re used to. The reason why Cuarón decided on this approach was not because of any particularly artistic sensibility but because of necessity. Over the course of a year, he had taken thousands of photographs of his then-girlfriend, Eireann Harper, and Cataño interacting with each other. He subsequently reordered the pictures and added new sounds – voiceovers and diegetic dialogue – to shape a different story from the real images.

The resulting sequence of pictures is an array of fleeting moments captured and emphasised for however the filmmaker desires. It moves from greyscale through desatured colour to colour photographs that very obviously originated on film. Some of the images are out of focus, others are very sharp. These are all fleeting moments tied together by sounds, thoughts and bits of dialogue to create a mosaic of an experience that belongs to no one and to everyone.

Occasionally, there is the slightest of movements across a picture to simulate a pan that somewhat changes the composition or plays with the forms inside the frame. Because the film is based on photographs taken of people who were often not aware that they would end up in a motion picture, some of the faces have been blurred, presumably out of respect for their privacy.

The film opens with this explanation:

From 2004 to 2005 I photographed my surroundings.
At the end of the year, I ordered the images in such a way that they suggested the following narrative.
These are documentary images. The moments and characters are real.

Only the story is fictional.

There is some initial setup in which we see Molly (Harper), a US student on an exchange programme in Mexico City who is constantly embarrassed by her loud-mouth Yankee friend, Katie, yearning for a more personal relationship with the country and its people. The first image we get of Diego is accompanied by a voice-over informing us that he jerked off three times the previous evening. And he is obsessed with the idea of seeing his fast-maturing cousin’s breasts.

Traces of Y Tu Mamá También, which Cuarón’s father, Alfonso, had directed just a few years earlier, are easily discernible (oversexed boy lusts after older woman), but it is to the young Cuarón’s credit that he skillfully keeps us wondering about the outcome without ever frustrating our hopes or expectations.

The story plays out over a year during which we see Molly the gringa move from having trouble getting her mouth around words with indiginous origins, like Quetzalcoatl, Tlalnepantla, Chicoloapan and Tlacuitlapa, to fluently saying the Spanish tongue twister that Diego taught her. Meanwhile, Diego develops from a horny 14-year-old to a horny 15-year-old who is infatuated with whichever girl is closest to him, and the most consequential development is that his ingrown toenail (whence the English title) is finally treated. The significance of the nail – slightly uncomfortable when it is there but immediately forgotten after it is removed – is self-evident.

Some of the best moments in the film are those, obviously also drawing from the narrative well of Y Tu Mamá También, in which voice-overs are juxtaposed with each other to create dramatic irony and insight into the characters that would have been difficult in a live-action film. Another point of reference here is the slightly socially awkward interaction between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen’s characters on the balcony in Annie Hall (Allen used subtitles instead of voice-overs).

The spontaneity of shooting with actors is lost here, as the conversations recorded after the fact come across as stilted and unconvincing, although the insistence and the breathy, moaning inflection of Cataño’s voice precisely convey his character’s annoyance at not being able to get what he craves. For some reason, almost all of Molly’s voice-over is produced as a loud whisper, which becomes increasingly bothersome as the film progresses.

In addition, the focus is scattered all over the place: Not only Diego and Molly, but also Diego’s mother, his cousin and a few others get their own scenes and voice-overs that are tangentially related but never an integral part of the central storyline.

The ease and skill with which Cuarón creates comical yet recognisable trains of thought in the teenage Diego’s head is simply remarkable. Año uña is a very funny film because the viewer can identify (with) the often silly notions of romance and intimacy that Diego is dealing with, such as when he considers the possibility of drowning in order for Molly to give him mouth to mouth. But the perspective is always gentle and understanding, and while it misses the hammer blow of a Y Tu Mamá También, it is nonetheless a beautifully conceived and strikingly executed work of story telling.

Desierto (2015)

Set on the United States–Mexico border, Desierto tracks a group of illegal immigrants fighting for their lives against the harsh environment and an even more brutal vigilante and his German Shepherd.

desiertoMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriters:
Jonás Cuarón

Mateo Garcia
Director of Photography:
Damián Garcia

Running time: 90 minutes

In Desierto, Jonás Cuarón’s evocative depiction of an illegal crossing at the United States–Mexico border, it is difficult to interpret the countless cacti scattered across the barren Arizona landscape as anything other than menacing middle fingers greeting the new arrivals to the country. Not only is this exhausting trek over a period of 36 hours grim, as is to be expected, but it has an aspect of horror thanks to the brutal vigilantism of an white-stubbled, wifebeater-wearing, Confederate flag–sporting gun-toter who has appointed himself and his German Shepherd the true anti-immigration task force.

Opening and closing on similar landscapes on either side of the infamous border, the film takes place entirely in the titular desert that connects the two countries. In so doing, it cuts out the backstories and integration that border-crossing films, from El Norte to Sin nombre, with many others in between, usually include for the sake of completeness. The always dependable Gael García Bernal takes the lead here as one of a dozen immigrants trying to cross into the United States and ultimately becomes the reluctant leader by virtue of determination, survival and luck.

After the small truck that was supposed to transport them breaks down, the group and their handlers walk across the border on foot but soon stare down the barrel of a gun when Sam (an ice-cold Jeffrey Dean Morgan despite the scorching heat) and his trusty dog, Tracker, find them and pick them off one by one. Moises (Bernal), who is lugging a teddy bear with and hopes to reconnect with his son in Oakland, accompanies the slowest at the back of the pack and thus ends up surviving the shoot-out, along with four others.

Cuarón uses his camera with great effect. While some may balk at two or three moments of extravagance (most notably, a fast backward tracking shot when someone is shot in the chest and the beautiful movement of the camera crossing a barb-wire border fence as it shows others doing the same), they never draw too much attention to themselves. Instead, they suggest a vibrant dynamism beneath the mostly desaturated landscape, and in the second example, there is an inherent identification with the immigrants’ journey and plight.

For the entire first half of the film, the focus is relentlessly on the forward movement of the immigrants. Unlike most other films in the genre, there is no small talk between the characters that would flesh out their stories and their reasons for making this perilous journey. Besides, it is a fair assumption to make that none of them would have risked their lives if they didn’t have good reason to do so. This approach towards the characters frees the director up to create significant tension by pitting life against death in almost every single scene.

In this way, we never feel like we are being fed information by a filmmaker but are instead witness to verisimilitudinous events. Unfortunately, the other half of the story, which concerns the half-drunk Sam, is handled with a little less care. Save an early altercation with a border protection officer, Sam never speaks to anyone, except his trusty canine companion (and/or himself). His one-sided conversations can feel a little contrived and ultimately serve little purpose beyond providing a mere outline of a character with a myopic vision of nationalism that is hostile to outsiders (“It’s my home!”), no matter who they are.

Another point on which Desierto scores less than full marks is a scene in the final act when a young woman comes face to face with a rattlesnake. This being Arizona, the encounter is not at all unexpected, but it is a surprise that the film waits so long before showing us a single snake – and then tries to make up for lost time by showing us an entire rhumba all at once.

Bernal is absolutely mesmerising as a young father taking a risk going on this journey but doing so in order to rejoin his family. His character, Moises, is thrust into a game of survival, and while he has to rely on instinct to stay alive, his kindness towards those around him – particularly those who need a helping hand – is evident throughout. Moises’s gentle humanity, coupled with the image and the meaning of the teddy bear, which introduces us to him in the opening scene, makes it easy for the viewer to root for him.

Over the decades, the hot-button issue of border crossings between the United States and Mexico has never really cooled down, and thus Desierto is as timely as ever, particularly given the rumblings from the Oval Office of the recently inaugurated 45th president of the United States. Cuarón, who has to be one of Mexico’s most accomplished young filmmakers, keeps his eye on the ball and seems to relish the challenge of working with a small cast and a single location, not unlike the experience of his director father, Alfonso, on Gravity. As was already apparent in the companion piece to the latter, the short film Aningaaq, Cuarón here again proves himself to be a talented storyteller dedicated to conveying very human stories in the most desolate environments.

Elephants Never Forget (2004)

Lorenzo Vigas’s short film looks at the indecision confronting a young boy and his sister who think they have made up their minds to kill their father.

elefantes-nunca-olvidanMexico/Venezuela
3.5*

Director:
Lorenzo Vigas
Screenwriter:
Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Héctor Ortega

Original title: Los elefantes nunca olvidan

Running time: 11 minutes

Juan (Guillermo Muñoz) is on a mission, but he hasn’t quite thought it through. In the opening scene of Lorenzo Vigas’s 2004 short Elephants Don’t Forget, he walks quickly down a dirt road, his torn jeans featuring prominently in close-up. He reaches a nondescript tenement with graffiti-covered outside walls, where his sister (Greisy Mena) furtively hands him a paper bag with a pistol inside. It seems they are both in on the mission, but her misgivings are much more evident. Initially, they are both so nervous they don’t even look at each other as they head towards what they hope will be their scene of the crime.

We quickly learn the intended victim is their biological father, Pedro (Gonzalo Cubero), because of whom they carry scars both physical and mental. Somehow they have tracked him down selling fruit at “the outpost”, have procured a revolver and hitched a ride on the truck transporting Pedro from one place to the next to peddle his wares.

Of course, once they come face to face with their nemesis, whose absence has fed their fury, they start to doubt whether they can go through with it. Juan, who is tasked with pulling the trigger, evinces palpable indecision as he tries to put on a brave face while fighting his inner demons. It is no surprise that he is full of bravado when Pedro either is far away or has his eyes closed, but once Pedro stares him down, he surrenders all his bravery.

Notwithstanding Pedro’s description of himself halfway through the film as an “elephant” because he never forgets a face, despite the fact that he doesn’t recognise his own flesh and blood and even goes as far as to flirt (albeit unknowingly) with his daughter, the “elephants” in the title likely refer to Juan and his sister, too. But if it is Pedro, one has to keep in mind it takes more a mere bullet to fell an elephant, and if it is the two teenagers, well, when was the last time you saw an elephant with a pistol?

These two children are out of their depth, and while we can empathise with their rage (in an early close-up, we see a gruesome scar allegedly left by Pedro’s earlier abuse), it is fascinating to see them try to convince themselves that revenge taken in this way is the best way to deal with the injustices of the past. Half of the film – a five full minutes – takes place on the back of the truck as Pedro tries to strike up a conversation with the two unwilling children.

Although the film has some gorgeous shots that play off blue skies against the fields of almost luminous yellow, with dark clouds hovering just above the horizon, the handheld camera and the very brutal editing, which includes inserting close-ups without warning, serve no real purpose beyond signalling the film was made on what appears to be a shoestring budget.

Except for the father issues and in particular the desire of a man or a boy to kill his own father, there is no apparent point of contact between Elephants Never Forget and director Vigas’s feature film début, From Afar, which examines the indecision of a young man about embarking on a relationship with a 50-something dental prostheticist in a much more visually sumptuous production.

From Afar (2015)

On the streets of Caracas, father issues push two men – the one in his late 50s, the other barely out of school – together into an ambiguous relationship that defies explanation until it’s too late.

from-afarVenezuela/Mexico
3.5*

Director:
Lorenzo Vigas

Screenwriter:
Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Sergio Armstrong

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Desde allá

He doesn’t blink. Almost never. He has money; they don’t. But for them to get the money, they have to expose themselves to his gaze until climax.

“He” is Armando (Alfredo Castro), a dental prostheticist in Caracas, Venezuela. “They” are young boys in wife-beaters who hang out on the street and can always do with an extra buck. One of them is Élder, who has a girlfriend but gets lured into Armando’s flat before violently taking the money to establish his manliness, or rather, his non-homosexuality (he constantly refers to Armando as an “old faggot”), and then fleeing the scene.

Armando, one of the two leads in Lorenzo Vigas’s From Afar, is an enigma. His apartment is immaculate but very quiet, and visitors are always for-pay. He has established a certain rhythm, and even when things don’t go as planned, he merely executes his plan as before, convinced that this time, somehow, the result will be different. But the viewer has good reason to be on edge, particularly because of the ominous but absolutely ravishing opening scene, shot in very shallow focus out on the streets of the capital, where Armando is on the prowl, visually isolated from everyone around him. This opening scene bookends strikingly with the deep-focus final scene, also set in downtown Caracas.

Armando has almost no social interaction with anyone except those he solicits with a heavy wad of cash – often in public. In an early scene, he shows up at his sister’s apartment. There is a short, hazy conversation about their father, who is back in the city, and the tension between Armando and his sister is thick enough to cut with a knife. But the rage remains pent-up, and the father, whom we never see up close but always “from afar”, wholly unapproachable.

In the meantime, Élder develops a relationship with Armando that is neither sexual nor friendly but rather one of convenience: Élder, who works in an auto shop and has no problem bringing in business directly from cars parked on the streets of Caracas, gets a sugar daddy who pays for whatever he needs, while Armando has some real human contact for what we assume is the first time in years.

Both of these characters suffer from a lifetime of daddy issues, however, and it is impossible to ignore Armando’s role as a father figure in the young man’s life. At the same time, however, Venezuela does not appear to be the most hospitable area for a relationship between two men, and they both have their ways of hiding their emotions and interest when in public. Unfortunately, this reservedness extends even into the private sphere, and we rarely get a glimpse into their thought processes.

For an extended period of time, one question hangs in the air: What does Armando get out of this? His emotions are suppressed to the point of being completely pulverised, so we won’t get an answer from him, but will this relationship manage to reinvigorate him? By the time the end credits roll, it would appear that Armando only used Élder to expel some of his own demons, but the fragmentary presentation of the film’s narrative helps very little in making sense of the events and the characters.

In his acting début, the young Luis Silva is a revelation. Although his character has a devil-may-care attitude at the outset, presumably a defence mechanism against a life that was not always easy, Silva’s deep dark eyes imbue him with a darkness that is ambiguous and keeps up wondering who will ultimately have the upper hand. By the time he cleans up and dons a proper shirt for a birthday party, it is impossible not to notice the seductive young man with the peachy lips who had been hiding in full view the whole time.

From Afar draws out its mysteries, relishing in our futile attempts to make sense of the slowly unspooling relationship, perhaps in the same way that the two characters are, although we cannot know for sure because the one (in part) and the other (in full) are so reluctant to stand naked before us, as it were. With such a short running time, it would be wrong to ask for much more colour, but a handful of scenes seem to be fragments left behind when earlier, fuller scenes were pared down for the sake of artistic obfuscation. But the silences – and Armando’s silent stare, especially – will continue to haunt the viewer long after the final credits.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

Lake Tahoe (2008)

lake-tahoeMexico

4*
Director:
Fernando Eimbcke

Screenwriters:
Fernando Eimbcke

Paula Markovitch
Director of Photography:
Alexis Zabé

Running time: 86 minutes

Lake Tahoe is an acquired taste. This small film by director Fernando Eimbcke consists mostly of static shots and has very little dialogue. It is set in a town so sleepy that the main character’s first act, inexplicably crashing his family’s red Nissan Tsuru on a wide road devoid of any turns, is the most action we’ll hear (we don’t even see the accident) the entire film. The boy’s name is Juan Cardozo, and through seemingly random incidents in which very little happens, we learn something about him in a way that is ultimately very satisfying for those who can stand the wait.

Eimbcke already showed in his début film, the narratively cosy and visually exciting Duck Season (Temporada de patos), that he is interested in characters rather than events. Both films also take place in a very short time frame: Duck Season over a Sunday afternoon, Lake Tahoe presumably on a Saturday morning and into Sunday morning. Both films star Diego Cataño as a taciturn, kind-hearted teenager who has some stuff to deal with. His presence is a big reason why these two films work so well. We can see him thinking behind his big eyes, even though we only have the faintest idea what might be going on in his head, and this mystery, which is never entirely opaque, is effective at keeping the viewer’s attention.

During two-thirds of the film, we get multiple shots of Juan walking around, often in frames that repeat again and again, trying to find someone who can help him fix the car. On his way around the town in which he often seems to be the only one who is (barely) awake, he meets an assortment of oddball characters, from a young mechanic who is a kung fu fanatic to an elderly mechanic who shares breakfast with his boxer dog, Sica, in a scene that becomes ever more touching as the film wears on.

Countless black screens interrupt what little action there is, although the soundtrack is ever-present, making us focus on the small details in the wind that are here one second and have disappeared the next. Most of the shots suggest the same idea, as the frame is empty for significant stretches of time at the beginning at the end of the take, with Juan traversing the screen in the middle. It is like a deadly quiet lake with a ripple of movement that breaks the stasis before it returns to tranquillity once more. 

The theme of loss becomes central to the film towards the third act, as we realise what is gnawing at Juan. But there is a long wait before Eimbcke gives us the information we need, and even his presentation of Juan is an exercise in patience, as we never get a close-up of his face and have to wait a very long time just to see him from closer than in a long shot. Eimbcke’s director of photography, Alexis Zabé, who has worked with Carlos Reygadas and also lensed Eimbcke’s Duck Season, departs from the static shots on at least two occasions. The first time, it works, as Juan escapes from an uncomfortable situation and we suddenly get two short dolly shots. But the second time, when Juan sees his mother crying in the bathroom, there is a slight push-in that is out of sync with the rest of the film.

While the latter shot attempts to elicit some feeling from us, there are a few scenes that are surprisingly effective at addressing our emotions. One involves the old mechanic making an important, albeit spur-of-the-moment, decision that ties in Juan’s own situation, a second is another unexpected scene late at night between Juan and the receptionist from an auto shop, and a third comes in the final scenes between Juan and his brother. Eimbcke, who had already worked so beautifully with children in Duck Season, continues his impressive understanding of their emotions here and gets another impressive performance from the young Cataño whose combination of white and black clothing suggests some inner struggle in the character. 

Lake Tahoe trips up only once, and that is by having a cutaway too soon, during one of the most powerful emotional moments for Juan. But in most other respects, this is a beautiful experience of spending time with a character that very slowly lets his guard down, accepts the gaping hole a loss has left in his life and assumes his new role with as much courage as he can muster. The film is absolutely beautiful, and thanks to Eimbcke and Cataño also eminently watchable.

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Mexico

3.5*
Director:
Luis Buñuel
Screenwriter:
Luis Buñuel
Director of Photography:
Gabriel Figueroa
Running time: 88 minutes

Original title: El ángel exterminador

The Exterminating Angel demonstrates how elusive explanations for human behaviour can be, and while we can often feel confident that rationalisation will eventually win out, or that time will tell why people behave the way they do, it’s not quite as simple as that. It is true that people have their reasons, but these reasons may be obscured by so many other factors that an explanation, though it may seem just beyond our reach, could in fact be forever out of reach.

The film is surreal, which means the pieces don’t quite fit together unless you allow for the loose traits of a dream. However, unlike more avant-garde works such as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, this film by Luis Buñuel has a general plot outline that can very easily be summarised.

At the house of a rich couple, their servants all decide to leave one night just as a whole host of guests arrive for a dinner party. They do so with their own very obviously made-up reasons, but it’s not made clear what their real intentions are. Only the majordomo remains. At the end of the evening, after many backstabbing bits of gossip between them, some drinks and a piece played on the piano, the guests prepare to leave, but then they realise they cannot bring themselves to do so.

They end up spending many days in the house, mostly inside one room, where their once mannered behaviour lapses and they descend to a level of basic needs and uncivilised outbursts, though the actual occurrence of some incidents is brought into question by the presentation of the material in the film.

The first shot of the film shows the name of the street on which this mansion is situated: Calle de la providencia (Providence Street). And the last shot in the film is of the exterior of a cathedral. The role of religion in the film is very oblique , although the title obviously has that connotation. The most straightforward connecting tissue would be the issue of free will and predestination, but Buñuel doesn’t make these themes explicit in any real way.

The easiest solution to the film lies in its inception. Having just left Spain after the controversy sparked by his Viridiana, and suffering under the rule of General Franco, Buñuel returned to Mexico to make this film, and it presents no obstacle to being interpreted as a demonstration of what happens to a group of people cut off from the rest of civilisation, left to fend for themselves in a small space and unable to leave.

The metaphor is problematic, especially because so many of the possible escape routes we think of never get tested, or the film discards them as soon as they are raised, for the example the possibility of pushing someone across the invisible but apparently insurmountable threshold inside the house.

“Life is amusing… and strange,” says one guest shortly after she realises she will be stuck against her will. At first, it seems it is the good manners of the guests that imprison them, as they are all too embarrassed to admit they want to leave, and simultaneously the hosts feel they cannot ask their guests to leave. But this explanation also unravels somewhat once the guests make it clear they truly want to go home. Unfortunately, the situation is summed up very explicitly in a laughable bit of dialogue by the character of the doctor, when he states that “no matter how hard we try, we cannot leave this room.”

One man dies, and two people commit suicide, and while the bodies rot and the stench drifts into the room, people are literally passing out from hunger and thirst. However, whenever they do get a bite to eat or something to drink, the small respite seems to prolong their stay even more – another potentially political statement.

The film isn’t always entertaining, as it has too many different characters who are never properly introduced or distinguished from one another, and the acting isn’t great either, but Buñuel’s ellipses between reality and dream are exceedingly well executed and often keep us in suspense as to the true events.

The Exterminating Angel contains numerous bizarre moments involving animals – among them a bear and a flock of sheep roaming around the mansion, and a bird in someone’s purse – that are left unexplained but never fail to pique or renew our interest in the events on-screen.

As social commentary, the film is biting, and its political slant is also difficult to miss. However, by refusing to explain why certain solutions are not available to his characters, Buñuel often doesn’t answer our questions and it is tough to read the film as a serious work of art. Dialogue scenes are too short and fragmented, and characters who start an important conversation or make a valid point are often interrupted and we are left hanging.

With a very sharp outline, the film’s central premise is difficult to forget, and while the film has its ambiguous moments, most of the plot is presented as if the actions of the characters were taking place according to the physical rules of nature. Determined filmgoers will scratch their heads about many of the events, and Buñuel likes to tease the viewer, as in the scene with a young boy who makes it onto the house’s grounds before, inexplicably, backing away. But all too often, explanations remain out of reach, and parts of the film cannot satisfy the viewer who demands some kind of cause and effect.

Quartet for the End of Time (1983)

Mexico

2*
Director:
Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter:
Alfonso Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Ariel Velázquez
Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Cuarteto para el Fin del Tiempo

Alfonso Cuarón handles comedy much better than drama and as he would show with many of his greatest achievements, he is in total control when he has free reign to do both. But his student film, Quartet for the End of Time, about a guy who lives alone in an apartment and never speaks to anyone, provides no entertainment and left me as bored as the tortoise that serves as the only thing the main character speaks to.

“Quartet for the End of Time” is the title of a famous composition by the twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, and indeed the main character plays a few chords from the piece’s third movement, “Abyss of the Birds”, on his clarinet. According to Messiaen: “The Abyss is Time, with all its sadness, its weariness. Birds are the opposite of time; it’s our desire for light, stars, rainbows and jubilant vocals.” Such sadness and weariness are certainly well conveyed by this particular short film, but beyond an expression of such dismal tedium, there is little else of note.

The cinematography is also a let-down. Besides the very few tracking shots, all of which reveal some bit of information, the staging is quite simple and the visuals simply lack imagination.

The very first scene shows some promise: lying in the bathtub, while a very small pet tortoise, hidden in its shell, balances on the edge, the main character reads out loud about tortoises. The protection that the shell offers to the little animal is not an uninteresting point, and its potential for meaning is hinted at by the subsequent dedication in the opening credits: Mariana and her belly. At the time, director Alfonso Cuarón (here billed as Alfonso Cuarón Orozco) was married to Mariana Elizondo, whose belly, we can surmise, was the protective shell to their child, Jonás, born in 1981. But the film does nothing to develop this idea in any shape or form.

Instead, we get a loose assortment of scenes, mostly taking place inside the apartment. Fortunately, with one or two exceptions, we are spared the prospect of listening to explanatory interior monologues, but watching the main character sit at his window (with a sticker for the “Paiste 2002” brand of cymbals) is far from exciting, nor does it substantially contribute to our impression of him as someone completely isolated – what the reasons for this isolations are, however, remain a mystery.

The apartment is clearly his shell, the space in which he feels comfortable and protected, and when he does leave the apartment – even though some of these excursions seem to be illusory – we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. When a film takes place in one setting, our attention needs to be focused, as the Cuarón-produced Duck Season so admirably managed to accomplish.

At the time he made the film, Cuarón had little filmmaking experience and this lack of understanding the form shows very well in his failure to properly direct his main actor (we get a comically amateurish scene in which this character fries a sausage in ten seconds) and the sound effects are completely atrocious. I could easily have ignored these points, were it not for the film’s unwillingness to provide some kind of plot. Granted, we see some transformation from beginning to end, but the reasons for this transformation are never even suggested. A mass of balloons that the character releases from his window might have something to do with it, but such symbolism obscures the plot even more.

It would take Cuarón eight years, and some experience in the field of television, before he undertook another film project, the delightful Love in the Time of Hysteria, and he needed that time to mature, for this student film is an uninteresting, tiresome disgrace that doesn’t even look good.

Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991)

Mexico

4.5*
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter: Carlos Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki
Running time: 94 minutes

Original title: Sólo Con Tu Pareja

In 2001, Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, would open with a shot that is almost an exact replica of the first shot in his first feature film: a young man and woman are having sex on a mattress while the camera slowly tracks towards them amidst their passionate shrieks of pleasure. Cuarón has a penchant for mixing comedy with much more serious reflections on human nature, and his first film, though much more broadly comical than any of his other projects, gives the viewer a taste of things to come.

Love in the Time of Hysteria shares a great deal with a 1980s Almodóvar classic such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and at many points the film had me in stitches. If you remember the running joke about the Shi’ite terrorists in Almodóvar’s film, you will love Cuarón’s recurring references to a gringa who put her French poodle in a microwave.

A young playboy called Tomás Tomás works in the advertising industry and has stuck it in so many places he has all but lost count of his conquests. When some white spots appear in his throat, he goes to see his friend, Mateo de Mateos, who is a doctor. Silvia, Mateo’s nurse, falls for Tomás and in the blink of an eye, they have arranged to meet at Tomás’s flat that evening. The only problem is that Tomás’s boss and part-time lover, Gloria, is on her way over to discuss the latest ad campaign. When the two women arrive, Tomás has his hands full to ensure that they are both satisfied without finding out about each other.

Unfortunately, a third woman piques his interest: a young flight attendant named Clarisa, who has just moved in next door. And so, Tomás loses track of time and poor Silvia leaves in a huff the next morning. In fact, she is so beside herself with frustration that she decides to play a trick on Tomás: we have already established that she is a lascivious little sadist, but now she informs him that his HIV test has come back positive.

But while this turn of events in Tomás’s life could potentially have terrible consequences, all of which Tomás seems to consider very seriously, Cuarón’s use of the colour green – as in so many of his other films, most visibly in Great Expectations – hints at the victory of life over death, whatever the red arrows of Cupid (that serve as accents on the green text of the opening credits) might otherwise indicate.

This is a film full of incidents of varying hilarity, staged with a magnificent sense of direction and energy, and while one could easily fault the film for a lack of real substance, it certainly holds the viewer’s attention, because the chaos does not overwhelm the storylines. Also, Cuarón’s use of mostly classical music on the soundtrack (which often consists of Mozart – predictably, the “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” aria from Don Giovanni) gives a slightly heavier, though perhaps only ironically, gloss to the events we witness.

Love in the Time of Hysteria doesn’t take itself too seriously – exhibit one is the opening quotation of the film, from e.e. cummings, which states that “mike likes all the girls […] all the girls except the green ones”, but these quotes ranges from such nonsense to Newton’s Third Law; its characters usually have the same first and last names, and Tomás’s friend Mateo uses cliché Latin sayings in most of his sentences. Nonetheless, the film certainly entertains and while the characters of the two Japanese businessmen have no real place in the story, this film showed the great promise on which Alfonso Cuarón would soon deliver. His cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki, would continue to work with him on most of his subsequent projects, as well as the films of Terrence Malick, while his other cameraman, Rodrigo Prieto, would work with the other great Mexican director of the last decade, Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Silent Light (2007)

Mexico

4*
Director:
Carlos Reygadas

Screenwriter:
Carlos Reygadas

Director of Photography:
Alexis Zabé

Running time: 127 minutes

Original title: Stellet licht
Alternative title: Luz silenciosa

It is not only light that is silent in Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’s third film: the characters’ world seems to be in perpetual stasis, though we rarely get the sense that they are frustrated with their quiet way of life. It is refreshing to see a heavily faith-based community presented in a way that makes them appear completely understanding and accepting of human nature, and it is this aspect that raises the film above similar other projects dealing with the same dramatic thread.

The three main characters are Johan, his wife Esther, and Johan’s mistress Marianne, who all form part of a small Mennonite community in Mexico, and almost all the dialogue is in Plautdietsch – a mixture between Dutch and German, with a pronunciation that made me think of Danish. Esther knows about Marianne, because Johan has told her about his mistress from the very start. We discover this important piece of information when Johan confesses to his father, the local preacher, about the affair, and the handful of scenes that precede their conversation is filled with tender moments of interaction between Johan and Esther that make it clear there is love and affection but not without some unknown sadness.

When discussing this film, audiences will focus on the rhythm of the film and the second to last scene, which is very reminiscent of the famous climax in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, though Reygadas refuses to provide a simple “miracle” and instead his film ends on a suitably ambiguous note. The rhythm of the film is slow without being overbearing, and while the camera certainly takes its time recording what seems to be the minutiae of everyday life in the community, the frames are not void of action, and the many actions that do cross the screen are all of great importance to the characters. Perhaps it was not necessary to record a very long take of Johan driving, in which the camera first shows us the road in front of the car, and then Johan at the wheel, but the tedium of this particular scene early in the film quickly dissipates.

The honesty of the main character is admirable and so is the complete lack of judgment of his affair in this tiny community – an affair that ultimately (at least, indirectly) leads to a tragedy. Distinctions between good and bad may only be made by the viewer, for the film does not venture into such territory of clear-cut oppositions, and the drama that does exist is the result of the viewer’s projections and expectations based on the material that is given to us in a very straightforward manner that is unembellished. The film also uses non-professional actors to create a world that is plain yet far from simple.

Silent Light opens and closes with impressive shots that seem to bring cosmic significance to the film, and the sustained lens flares during a romantic scene on a hill also make visible the presence of light in the characters’ lives. The amazing state of grace in which these characters exist is beautiful to behold and a far cry from the usual dramatic tension that results from actions, reactions and tension between polar opposites. The film seems to relate an optimism about forgiveness, but it is important to note the central issue that is the internal struggle of all three main characters and how they deal with it. While Silent Light is entirely divested of extradiegetic music, it does contain a very touching moment in a van when Johan and his children watch Jacques Brel on television performing “Les Bonbons”, a song whose lyrics vaguely mirror Johan’s love triangle.

Carlos Reygadas has made a very special film that illuminates the isolated community of the Mennonites in Mexico and while one might argue that the story is too small for a two-hour film, the pace of the film is as steady and as firm as the flow of the characters’ lives and these lives end up unexpectedly moving our emotions.

Duck Season (2004)

Mexico
4*

Director:
Fernando Eimbcke

Screenwriters: 
Fernando Eimbcke
Paula Markovitch

Director of Photography:
Alexis Zabe

Running time: 85 minutes

Original Title: Temporada de patos

When we, the viewers, spend an hour and a half in the company of a very small group of characters (four, to be precise) in one location, then they better be likeable. Fortunately, Duck Season does not disappoint.

One Sunday, two young teenage boys, Juan Pablo (“Moko”) and Mario (“Flama”), both 13 or 14 years old, spend the day at Flama’s mother’s flat, while she is out doing her chores. They drink Coke, eat chips and play video games. Then, 16-year-old Rita from next-door arrives to use their oven. They don’t pay much attention to her. Even when the power goes out, they prefer to sit in silence in front of the TV, rather than strike up a conversation. They order pizza, which leads to an oddly thrilling sequence in which the pizza delivery guy tries to outrun the clock. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t (although the soundtrack is clear on this point), and this uncertainty leads to a showdown between him and the boys.

By this stage, we’re only 30 minutes into the film, but you’ll have noticed that quite a lot actually happens, in spite of the many, many moments of silence, at least initially, in which the characters are visibly bored and just waiting for time to pass, for things to become less awkward.

Director Fernando Eimbcke demonstrates real skill in finding many different positions to place his camera: inside cupboards, inside the refrigerator, inside the oven – at one point, the camera even takes the place of an important painting in the living room. The film, shot entirely in black and white, on what must have been a shoestring budget, shows what can be accomplished when the characters are interesting and the story is well-developed.

The only deviation from the apartment setting (apart from the quirky sequence, mentioned above, in which Ulises, the pizza delivery man, races to deliver the pizza on time) is a flashback to a dog pound, which feels completely out of place. Also, the film tends to cheat from time to time by using the cuts, occurring between the scenes that mostly take place in the living room and the kitchen, as bridges across time, and these ellipses actually obscure important events that occur offscreen.

The self-confident Rita provides plenty of material to work with, but it is the young Moko, played by actor Diego Cataño, who impresses the most with his splendid performance, hinting at awkwardness and secrecy in his outer appearance of mere shyness, and yet these traces are never overstated or overplayed.