After this screening one of my friends was scanning the Leeds Film Festival brochure for a film that would cheer him up. I was fortunate as I followed this with Gloria. After Lucia film was written and directed by Michael Franco. I think the script was one of the problems with the film. The style and production are well done, with two excellent central performances. I incline to the view that ‘auterism’ has encouraged many directors to write their own scripts when they would be better served by relying on a professional writer.
The film’s opening suggested to me a tale about bereavement and grief: there have been a cycle of such films since the 1990s. First we see a man pick up a car from a repair yard. He drives away, stops at a red light, then removes the keys, gets out and walks away, leaving the car in the middle of the road. Then there is a cut to a young girl of school age, sitting on rocks and gazing pensively at the sea. She wears a distinctive earring, which helps to identify her later. The man is Roberto, the girl is Alejandra. We learn fairly soon that their wife and mother [Lucia] was killed in a road accident.
Roberto and Alejandra move to Mexico City. The characters in the film seem uniformly to refer to the city as Mexico, which confused me for a time. Roberto is setting up a restaurant; Alejandra is starting at a new school. They are fairly affluent, as are her new classmates. Some are as rich and self-centred as the school students in the earlier La Zona (Mexico, 2007). [The latter film dealt with two young proletarian youths who break into an affluent housing estate that overlooks the slums of Mexico City. The consequences, involving bourgeois youths on the estate, are violent]. The parents in La Zona pass their values onto their children who copy their actions. In After Lucia the parents of the school students are never seen. There seems to be a recurring motif in Mexican cinema of ‘absent bourgeois parents’.
Alejandra’s vulnerability leads to her being bullied by a group of students. Roberto is too consumed by grief to offer much support.
Michael Franco sees the film as a treatment of violence. “Even the way that the father and daughter communicate – or fail to communicate – turns out to be a sort of violence.” He also suggests some sort of distant parallels with the actual widely-reported violence in Mexico at the present.
I found the early sequences introducing the father and daughter and their grief-stricken situation very effective. And both performances are well done. However as the school and the bullying took centre screen I found the film less convincing. The plot is over-determined, i.e. the dramatic developments are piled on relentlessly. I found this unconvincing. The bullying really does become violent. Yet the staff and the school appear completely unaware of this. When Alejandra arrives at the school she is given a drug test; is that the limits of the school’s discipline and supervision?
As the agonies pile on Alejandra the film begins to feel like a combination of sadism and masochism. Hence my friends response at the end of the film. The earlier La Zona offered a tale centring on young people, but emphasising class as the dividing force. This convincingly motivates the actions of their parents. The film managed to portray violence without suggesting sadism and [for me] had a far more effective resolution.
This Mexican feature, like the earlier LFF film Memories Look at Me, is placed somewhere between fiction and documentary. It’s a deceptive neo-realist story that forgoes a strong central narrative in order to present events in the life of a Mexican family in separate episodes over a few years. In the section titled ‘The Return’ at the beginning of the film, Pedro, a would-be dance band musician returns from his latest trip ‘over there’ (i.e. to New York) bringing with him an electric piano he’s bought in the hope of starting a new band. He’s welcomed back by his wife and two young daughters, the older one, Lorena already a rather moody adolescent. In the next few months Pedro finds that earning money from the band will not be easy. He works in the fields picking corn cobs and later on building sites, but it is hard to make progress.
The film’s setting is the province of Guerrero, specifically Copanatoyac, a small town in the mountains. The presentation is calm and slow-paced. Individual shots are often held in beautiful long shot compositions for 30 seconds or more. On the other hand, there is plenty of diegetic music (all written and performed by the musician Pedro De los Santos, playing himself) with rehearsals and impromptu performances. There is a strong sense of place and we get to know the characters well. There are moments when it looks as if the film might move into realist melodrama – especially when Teresa, Pedro’s wife, has a problem pregnancy and Pedro must find money for drugs and for blood transfusions in the hospital of the nearest major town. At this point, I was concerned that Pedro, in desperation, would turn to stealing the money as the hospital offered to accept money instead of blood. But seemingly deliberately, the director withdraws from the possibility of dramatic scenes and this particular crisis is averted. By underplaying these scenes, writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza allows the overall narrative effect to perhaps be stronger. He was brought up in Madrid and trained in New York, having also lived in Mexico according to his bio in the beautifully-produced Press Pack on the official website. It has taken him five years to realise this project in which Pedro and Teresa play versions of themselves. The whole cast is non-professional but the film is very well put together.
It’s a hard life in the hills and there are many problems to be overcome with stoicism and the occasional dance. One scene typifies the philosophical position of an elderly woman who announces that when she dies she doesn’t want to be carried in her coffin in a procession to church. She doesn’t want a fuss – she has already been to Mass and she wants to go straight to her grave.
Here and There received support from the Sundance Festival and it screened at Cannes in the Critics’ Week strand. It has been highly praised by critics but I have seen some reviews which clearly don’t appreciate the power of quiet, contemplative cinema. I agree with the consensus which recognises that the unique approach of the film in tackling the other side of the migration issue – what happens to the people and communities left behind? They suffer in different ways – children who don’t see their fathers, young women who lose their boyfriends, wives their husbands, friends their social contacts. I was disturbed to read that Guerrero is now the Mexican province with the highest murder rate (presumably around Acapulco) but just as tragic is the slow death of communities from loss of migrants to ‘over there’. Aquí y Allá deserves to be distributed widely.
Here’s a trailer indicative of ‘feel’ and pacing:
The inaugural MexFest runs in London in August. A celebration of Mexican film and culture, taking place at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, it spans three full days, starting on August 17th with the world première of Made in Mexico (Hecho en Mexico) by Duncan Bridgeman, followed by a concert from Amandititita the Mexican queen of Anarcumbia. We are happy to promote new festivals of global cinema so here are highlights from the website and the following sources:
Festival Highlights include:
- World première Made in Mexico (Hecho en Mexico), a kaleidoscopic portrait of the music of Mexico, its people and their way of life, by UK filmmaker Duncan Bridgeman (dir. One Giant Leap), followed by a live concert from Amandititita, the Mexican queen of Anarcumbia, an urban blend of rock, reggae, rap, and traditional Mexican cumbia.
- The festival closes with a screening of Daniel and Ana (Daniel y Ana), which follows the kidnapping of a brother and sister and is the first feature from acclaimed director Michel Franco (his second feature, After Lucia, won this year’s ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at Cannes).
- Documentary film highlights include award-winning The tiniest place (El lugar más pequeño), by Tatiana Huezo, which follows the struggle of five families to rebuild their lives in the middle of war and Draught (Cuates de Australia) by acclaimed director Everardo González.
- Short film highlights include Carlos Cuarón’s The Second Bakery Attack starring Kirsten Dunst and Elisa Miller’s Watching it rain, winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes and two programmes of vibrant, short animations including the Best Animated Short at Morelia International Film Festival, Black Doll (Prita Noire).
- Rare opportunity to view sci-fi classics from Mexico hardly screened before in the UK.
- A series of talks with Mexican filmmakers.
- A Sensory Pop Up Studio by Sight of Emotion charity.
- The first ever UK exhibition of Lucha Libre photographs by Lourdes Grobet and the first ever projection onto the Rich Mix facade by renowned artist Tupac Martir, titled ‘The Gentleman, The Mermaid, Mexican Cinema, Lottery!’
LondonMexFest is part of the Shoreditch Fringe Festival www.shoreditchfringe.org
My third 70 mins feature during !Viva¡ turned out to be the least interesting, despite featuring a producer’s credit from Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas and being promoted in some quarters as similar to the Dardenne Brothers or even Tsai Ming-Liang (see this quite positive review that appeared after a Leeds Film Festival screening with director Carlos Serrano Azcona in tow in 2009). This time round the film featured in the Instituto Cervantes’ ‘Cine en construcción’ strand. Santiago wanders fitfully around Madrid. He appears to be separated from his wife and is prevented by legal constraints from seeing his children (but he does try). This information is revealed to us over the course of the film and Azcona expects us to ‘work out’ what is happening. Santiago is fired from a bar job originally given to him by an old friend. He plays football with some youths, buys dope from a dealer, is propositioned by a prostitute and takes home a young woman who is being abused by a British tourist/student. At least it might be his home, but I’m not sure – twice he sleeps rough on a bench in a city street. That’s about as much plot as there is – apart from the ending which I won’t ‘spoil’. I think I might have dozed off and missed the ‘tree’ of the title. In an interview, Azcona makes some interesting comments about the Dardenne Brothers’ work, but what he says he was attempting didn’t work for me.
The strategy is to follow the character closely with the camera – showing the back of his neck as the weakest point. But although I have found this illuminating in the Dardenne Brothers’ work, it usually requires a character who is interesting in a situation with some dramatic interest, neither of which I found here. All the actors here are non-professionals, which could have worked well if they had been given a bit more to do. Santiago is played by the Mexican painter Bosco Sodi who is quite believable but doesn’t command the screen. All in all, a disappointment after El asaltante last week with a similar aesthetic, but (much) more dramatic content.