The full ¡Viva! film festival experience returns to HOME, Manchester at its usual time of the year after the interruptions of the last two years. The 2022 festival begins this coming Friday 18th March with Explota explota, a film featuring the songs of the 1970s superstar Raffaella Carrà, and continues through to Thursday April 7th. A familiar programme structure sees two features each weekday and an extended programme at the weekends. A festival calendar is available here. This year’s programme features 19 new features from Spain and Latin America plus two classic archive films from Luis García Berlanga. These are later works by Berlanga, La Vaquilla (The Heifer, 1985) and Patrimonio nacional (National Heritage, 1981), both comedies.
A highlight of the programme will be the visit of Icíar Bollaín, who will be present for a Q&A following the screening of her 2021 film Maixabel. This film explores the potential for ‘repentance and reconciliation’ when a woman agrees to meet one of the ETA group members who killed her husband, a Basque politician eleven years earlier. ‘Live’ Q&As were not possible for the last festivals and it’s great to see them returning. The twenty one festival films are available across fifty screenings with all films being screened at least twice. Some features will be accompanied by short films. There are also other ‘added value’ elements such as film introductions and guest appearances plus the annual Café Cervantes opportunity to chat about films in Spanish and a ‘Language Lab’ session for adult students.
This year’s films come from Spain, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Mexico. Eleven of the films are from début directors and there is a group of six ‘coming-of-age’ stories so there is a ‘youthful’ feel to the festival overall.
It can’t have been easy trying to develop a festival programme as the COVID regulations in different territories have chopped and changed over the last two years but ¡Viva! is in the safe hands of Rachel Hayward, Head of Film, Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator, and Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford and HOME’s Senior Visiting Curator: Film. We hope to feature at least one report from the festival this year as we make our cautious re-entry into cinemas. But if you are in Manchester or can visit easily, we recommend diving in. All the details of screenings and events are on the HOME website.
New Order, written and directed by Michel Franco, won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2020. It has had a limited release in the UK and is now streaming on MUBI in the UK. I have been aware of Franco for some time but I hadn’t watched any of the films before New Order, which gained some extra promotion via Jason Wood’s new edition of The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema (2021). As Director of Cinema at HOME in Manchester, Wood was able to screen New Order and interview Franco. The MUBI presentation of the film includes a recorded Q&A featuring Franco and his lead player Naian González Norvind.
New Order is a ‘large scale’ film featuring expansive crowd scenes, multiple characters and dressing of locations across Mexico City. It doesn’t match the epic sweep of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (Mexico-US 2018), but with co-production money from France it is an impressive production. The New Order of the title refers to an ‘uprising’ in Mexico which leads to a period of chaos and then a military counter-revolution which delivers a dystopian martial law. Reactions to the film have been polarised but it has certainly provoked discussion and reflection. In the Q&A Franco refers to several recent events around the world, not just in Latin America but in Europe with the gilets jaunes, the storming of the White House by Trump supporters and the outcomes of the ‘Arab Spring’ – the situation in Egypt came to mind for me. Franco claims that it was the rise of right-wing populist movements from 2014 that fed into his script. (‘New Order’ is a term associated with fascist groups, especially the Nazis and their contemporary equivalents.) The problem for audiences appears to be that some have actually misread the events on screen and others have, not surprisingly, read them from their own particular ideological perspectives. Perhaps the most striking observation by both Franco and González Norvind in the Q&A was that in Mexico there is no ‘official story’, nobody is accountable and the corruption is such that most of the population never know what has actually happened. I have to say that the way politics and its media coverage is going in the UK/US and much of Europe, not to mention India and China, the Mexican experience is something that is beginning to be shared widely.
New Order begins with a montage of images which act rather like those at the beginning of episodes of TV serials, teasing us with shocking images from later scenes. When the narrative proper begins we see disruption and chaos in a hospital and a clear indication that violent events are happening in the city centre. The action then cuts to a lavish wedding party in an upper-class gated community. Marianne (Naian González Norvind), the daughter of the house, is to be married to Alan, an architect. There are many guests in the large modern mansion. A judge is due to arrive to register the marriage but on the radio/TV there are reports of looting and violence elsewhere in the sprawling city region. The specific inciting moment of the narrative is the arrival at the gates of Rolando, an ex-employee of the family, a servant who worked closely with the family and especially the children Marianne and her older brother Daniel. Ronaldo is seeking to borrow a large sum of money because his wife is dangerously ill and the public hospital is overwhelmed. If we have been concentrating we recognise him from the opening hospital scenes. Unless he can take his wife to a private hospital she will die. He is an almost Biblical figure, the poor man at the gate, arriving at the feast. But is his plea a ruse? Is he connected to the ‘trouble’ in the city as one character seems to suggest? The crucial decision is Marianne’s. She decides to leave her wedding in order to drive the couple to the private hospital. From this decision will come the trajectory of the narrative. Through Marianne, a wealthy young woman who has some form of social conscience, we will see the full impact of the uprising in the city and how it is put down. Some audiences have seen this as a skewed narrative, in which everything is from the perspective of the privileged. Others argue that it reveals the naivety of young wealthy characters like Marianne who live in their bubble and assume that their generosity will in some way assuage the angry demands of the poor. Marianne is the central character but in some ways it is Cristian, one of the servants closely linked to the family who most drives the action forward.
Cristian (Fernando Cuautle) is the nephew of Ronaldo and he and his mother Marta (Mónica Del Carmen) still work for the family. His character is familiar from many contemporary Mexican films, a key figure in narratives that explore social disparity. He is ‘of the poor’ but he works closely with the super rich. He drives their cars, organises the other workers and acts as their agent. His mother or his wife would be a housekeeper, personal maid or nanny for the rich children (like the maid in Roma). Mexican society is akin to the post-colonial European societies. Cristian is a ‘subaltern’ figure, a young man with knowledge of the rich world and a range of skills that allow him to operate the system, but he has no rights or privileges himself. ‘Uprisings’ of the poor place him in a very difficult position. Which side is he on? New Order is linked to all those dramas, melodramas, satires etc. from Mexico and other Latin American industries (especially Brazil) which explore social disparity and the tensions between a ‘European’ elite and a mestizo/indigenous majority population. It is also linked to some of the science fiction/speculative dystopia narratives that have emerged in Latin America. For instance, the idea of Zones set up to control movement following the counter revolution reminded me of La Zona (Mexico 2007).
I’m not sure what to make of New Order. I was impressed by the production and I see that the cinematography (in ‘Scope) was by Yves Cape. He has shot many of the French films that I have enjoyed over the past few years. New Order looks good and the narrative is compelling, but somehow the film didn’t move me. Perhaps I just wanted a clearer political argument? It could be that I’m just as naive as Marianne and that I can’t accept the ending that Michel Franco delivers. Some of the Press quotes suggest that the film is a wake-up call for the super rich. But New Order is worth watching and you might come to a different conclusion. Franco’s earlier film April’s Daughter (Mexico 2017) is also on MUBI.
This is a streaming programme available on several platforms including You Tube. It is provided by Filmoteca UNAM which is an annexe based in London offering ‘A Centre for Méxican Studies’ on behalf of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Their home web page gives information on their variety of services and studies. This programme is titled The Golden Age of Méxican Cinema. A Prelude.
This ‘golden age’ is generally considered to have run from 1930 into the 1950s. This was a period on increased production, high production values, and films made by distinguished directors and craft people. This prelude is offering six titles from both the preceding decade and the 1930s and includes from both silent and sound cinema. The titles were streamed on Tuesdays weekly in February and March; at the moment all the titles remain available on YouTube – search UNAM UK and scroll the horizontal listing. I assume that they are available beyond the bound of Britain. Titles have the UNAM page in the frame and have English sub-titles for the Spanish title cards or the dialogue. Note there are an earlier versions on this platform which do not have sub-titles. And there are panels and similar in the early frames which seem to be cross-feeds from the initial stream using zoom.
Silent Film Titles
Tepeyac. México, (1917)
Directors: Carlos E. Gonzáles, José Manuel Ramos y Fernando Sáyago.
This is a drama set round the myth of an apparition by the Virgin Mary to an indigenous Indian in the 16th century. Tepeyac [Tepeyacac] is close to Mexico City. In the Aztec culture it was the site of a temple to an Aztec Goddess Tomantzin. By the 1520s the Spanish had succeeded in overthrowing the dominant Aztec society and introducing colonial control and exploitation of the lands and peoples. Conveniently in 1531 an Indian, Juan Diego, who had converted to the Spanish catholic religion claimed to encounter an apparition of the virgin Mary on Tepeyac hill. She asked that a shrine be erected at this spot to her. The Spanish authorities were sceptical when Juan Diego reported this to the bishop. However, when he produced a miraculous image of the Virgin they were convinced. So a Basilica was erected at Tepeyac with the shrine known as Our Lady Of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is the name of the local villa, now a suburb of the city. I wondered if the use of Guadalupe rather than Tepeyac was because the latter had associations with a Aztec goddess. The conversion of the Indians and such a myth were instrumental in increasing the hegemony of the Spanish in Mexico.
The title opens with information about the digital restoration of the film in 2016. Title cards briefly refer to the ‘tradition’ of this apparition and its importance in Mexican culture. Then, in a common trope of the period, we are introduced to the cast and their characters. The film has two story lines. One involves a young woman Lupita and her boyfriend Carlos. When she fears for his safety she prays to the Virgin. Inset in this drama is a re-telling of the myth of the apparition.
The title is in black and white; I wondered if the original had some tinting, possibly for night scenes. The cinematography is in long shots; at several points the camera moves closer to the protagonists but still effectively long shots. The film valorises the myth but also does give attention to the Indian culture. The restoration work has been well done and the images and title cards are pretty good. Note, the English sub-titles are laid across the title cards reducing the clarity of both.
The title has an accompaniment by José María Serralde Ruiz at the piano with Valeria Palomina and Martin Diaz Velez on woodwind.
El Tren Fantasma. (México, 1926)
Dir. Gabriel García Moreno.
This is the second silent in the Mexican title season. It is an action drama set on the Ferrocaril-Mexicano line in Orizaba Province, close to Vera Cruz. A railway engineer is sent to Orizaba to investigate ‘irregularities’. He arrives and is met by the rail dispatcher Don Tomas and his daughter Elena. She is accompanied by Paco. Adolfo and Paco become rivals for Elena’s affections. Adolfo’s investigations soon involve him in tracking down the bandit gang behind recent robberies.
The cinematography by mainly uses long shots and mid-shots, though there are several close-up for dramatic detail. The camera is mobile; there are frequent high angle shots, presumably from buildings and possibly platforms or cranes. This is especially so in a fine sequence of a chase in a disused rail works with the actors climbing over an array of buildings, walls and machinery. At least one of the bandit members is played by an actor with acrobatic skills.
The film also uses moving cameras, frequently placed on an engine or tender or following along rail tracks. This is well done and the actors have some fairly dramatic stunts and actions. And the film uses superimpositions; one very effective one shows Paco watching his rival with Elena, sitting by a pool, and the image in his mind of her superimposed. The film effectively combines actuality footage with staged scenes and sequences. The editing of this is sharp and precise. I could not find a credit or listing for an editor on the film; it may have been the director or cinematographer.
The restoration in 2002 had to work on a print with many problems and none of the original title cards. There was also missing footage. In this digital version a sequence before the climax is reconstructed using still and titles. I think there are probably other short lengths of missing footage but the overall narrative works and the new title cards provide the necessary information.
There is a very sprightly accompaniment with José María Serralde on piano: Omar Álvarez on violin: and Roberto Zerquere on percussion.
El Puño de Hierro. (México, 1927)
Dir. Gabriel García Moreno.
This is a later film by the same director and cinematographer as El tren fantasma. The plot shares the melodramatic aspects of the earlier film but the central theme appears to be moral and educational. This is a expose and riposte to the drug taking habit and the criminal underworld in which it operates. The basic plot of the film is illustrated in a effective title frame which shows a trio in the grip of a hand as a hypodermic enters the forearm. The film includes what appear to be actuality footage of the care and rehabilitation of victims of drug taking.
Like ‘El tren . . .’ the film mixes actuality footage with staged drama. But the footage supporting the moral theme slows the pace of the film and the fights and chase are not as dynamic as in the earlier film. This title was restored in 2001 and digitised in 2016. Many of the title cards were missing and explanatory titles based on the surviving script have been inserted; even so there are some points where not all is clear.
The style of the film is similar to its predecessor. The cinematography mainly uses long shots and mid-shots with a few close ups for dramatic detail; like the injection of morphine which is actually shown. There are hardly any of the tracking shots which added to the dynamism of ‘El tren ..’ The settings though mirror the earlier film; much of the action is set on what seems to be an old ruin, similar in some ways to the earlier rail workings.
The film runs over half-and-half longer than ‘El tren…’ but the actual action lot occupies a similar amount of time to the train plot. I wondered what motivated this title. Perhaps there were some monies for such a moral property or perhaps they reflect The personal experience of the production members. This version looks reasonable and has involved much restoration. The end titles provide a cast list; however the musical credits are missing but it is the same trio led by Jose Maria Serralde Ruiz, again in fine form.
Sound Film Titles
The three sound films form a trilogy set during the Mexican revolution; all three films were directed by Fernando Fuentes. The revolution lasted a decade, from 1910 to 1920. Initially there was a rebellion against the dictatorship of President Díaz. In 1911 there was a military coup by a General Huerta; The resistance to his government included the forces led by Emiliano Zapata and a Constitutionalist Army controlled by Venustiano Carranza. When Huerta was overthrown in 1914 a civil war broke out between the forces of Zapata and Carranza. Pancho Villa, initially part of the Constitutionalist armies, sided with Zapata but Carranza’s forces were finally victorious.
El Prisionero 13, (México 1933)
Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.
The film is an early ‘talkie’ or sound film, in black and white and running 73 minutes.
The story is set during the early days of resistance to General Huerta. The plot follows the family of one of Huerta’s officers, Colonel Carrasco. The Colonel’s wife and infant son left him and years later, when a rebellion breaks out, their re-encounter leads to a melodramatic finale.
The film predominately uses long shots and mid-shots with infrequent close-ups. However, the cinematographer Ross Fisher offers a more dynamic style for the climax. Set in the military barracks there are powerful tracking shots along line of prisoners and squads of soldiers. The editing by Aniceto Ortega is also effective with number of lap-dissolves which relate characters and settings.
The soundtrack uses plot-related sound behind the dialogue and there are occasional bugle and military band music. The film has been restored but the streaming quality was not great with some minor buffering.
El Compadre Mendoza, (México, 1933)
Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.
The film’s title translates as ‘My Buddy Mendoza’ but there is also an English title, ‘Godfather Mendoza’.
The protagonist Rosalio Mendoza is a rich landowner who is also involved in other businesses with his two brothers. Rosalio manages to be on good terms both with the Zapatistas and the Government military and we see units of both armies entertained on his hacienda. A frequent trope shows servants changing the portraits that hang in the study; from Huerta to Zapata: from Zapata to Huerta and finally the hanging of that of Carranza.
A Zapatista General is godfather to Mendoza’s son and the film displays more sympathy for the Zapatistas than the Government forces. But the arrival of the civil war forces Mendoza into a choice between the opposing armies.
There are familiar names and faces from El Prisionero trece, both in front of and behind the camera. However this is a far more dynamic production. The film opens with a excellent touch; the camera tracks along the ground, then on a rifle butt trailing in the dust as the camera tilts up to show a weary Zapatista at the rear of a military column as it arrives at the hacienda. Entrances and exits to the hacienda regularly show the gate in the walls that surround the property. In the course of the film there are fluid tracking shots and ambitious pans, one describing a complete circle. Interiors make frequent use of dollies which show the sets are often full of lead characters and numbers of extras. The film also uses both high and low angle shots and superimposition to emphasize the drama and forward the action. The flow is assisted by numerous lap dissolves as sequences develop. And the is the judicious use of low key lighting in the frequent night time scenes. The sound track techniques are basic with limiting mixing functions; we hear dialogue, diegetic noises and several songs [again sung by the Zapatista] which also comment on the plot. There are only a few snatches of non-diegetic music, which accompany the different military forces and add to their characterisation.
The cinematography is by Ross Fisher who shot El Prisionero trece and the earlier film had a couple of sequences that shared the dynamic camera work. However, this title was edited by the director [no editor is shown in the credits] and the dynamic approach is apparent right through the 85 minutes running time. Like the earlier film there is a powerful final sequence to the story; a body is shown hanging in the gateway at the exit from the hacienda.
¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa!, (Let’s Go With Pancho Villa!., México, 1936)
Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.
This was the third and last title in the trilogy of films; it was not successful at the box office and the production company was bankrupted, though Fuentes continued writing and directing films into the 1950s.
The title character, Pancho Villa [originally Francisco] is one of the best known of the figures of the revolutionary decade. A wealthy landowner he entered the wars in the early stages when the rebellion began against the Presidency of Porfirio Díaz. Over the course of the revolution Villas changed sides more than once. He was prominent in the fight against the dictatorship of General Huerta, as part of the Constitutionalist forces. In the film the final stages are set as Villa’s army set off to what became the battle of Zacatecas in 1914. This was the decisive battle which led to the defeat of General Huerta. However, it was followed by a civil war between Villa, allied with Emiliano Zapata, and the Constitutionalist forces led by Venustiano Carranza. Carranza was finally victorious and for some years Villa was not included in the pantheon of the revolution.
The film opens in the small town of San Pablo where an army captain in Huerta’s forces is investigating the deaths of 14 of his soldiers. He suspect a young man, Miguel/Angel. Miguel goes on the run. He calls at the house of a fellow radical Tiburcio. Joined by four other friends they set off to join Villa’s army. We meet Villa as he distributes grain to the peasants from his military train, whilst his soldiers eat, sing, drink and attempt amours. Villa is portrayed as very effective in his rhetoric to the troops and to the peasants. He welcomes the new recruits and nicknames then ‘The Lions’; they are Tiburcio, Miguel, Martin, Maximo, Meliton and Rodrigo.
The rest of the film presents a series of battles between Villa’s forces and those of General Huerta. Villa’s army is generally victorious but there are frequent set-backs and large number of fatalities. There are intervening scenes, mostly of ‘the lions’, of the personal lives of the soldiers; and alongside those showing Villa’s planning and leadership. The Lions’ are brave and very supportive of their fellow members. However, battle by battle, individual members die. Some in battle but some from the ravages that accompany the war.
The film has a fairly varied use of camera and editing though it is less dynamic than El compadre Mendoza. In particular there are far fewer tracking shots, though a couple of the forces of Villa, like at the initial sequence on the military train, are impressive. But there are frequent pans and dollies, high and low angle shots and frequent cuts to close-ups of protagonists. Much of the film presents large scale battle sequences: these include trench warfare: charges by Villa’s volunteers: and hand-to-hand fighting during assaults of redoubts and fortresses. The editing, this time by J. B. Noriega; maintains a high tempo that drive forward the action. The opening of the film sets the tone with a short montage of images that will follow in the main narrative. The soundtrack includes much martial music, in particular to accompany Villa’s forces. There are several songs, sang by ‘the Lions’ and other Villa volunteers; one that is repeated is ‘If they kill me tomorrow …’.
Villa is portrayed as a ruthless character ready to sacrifice his men in the pursuit of victory. The representations in the film are pointed clearly in a long opening on-screen title which includes:
blame for the cruelty [in the war] cannot be put on any group of people . . .,
thus inferring that such actions were common to all sides in the conflict. This film, like the two earlier, has a muted support of the revolutionary forces but does not really valorise them. It is individual characters who receive the positive representations in this trilogy.
This film shares several elements with an earlier festival screening, A Common Crime. Like that Argentinian film, it has the issue of the ‘disappeared’ at its centre and a discourse of violence – though in this case the police don’t seem to be involved in causing the deaths. Like the Argentinian film it also has a woman in the lead role, played by a respected theatre actress, but in this case the character Magdalena is a working-class woman from Central Mexico and significantly older at 48. Finally, both films seem to be ‘personal’ and the work of an auteur director rather than aiming for generic status, despite including some familiar generic elements.
The film’s title refers to the language of the official paperwork, used when bodies are found and might be identified by relatives, usually the parents of young men. The film begins with a painful goodbye as a teenager, despairingly young Jésus, says goodbye to his mother and heads out across the plain with his slightly older friend, hoping to make it across the US border and meet up with the friend’s uncle in Arizona where he could find a job. After a couple of months Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has heard nothing from her son and she decides to travel to the border to try to find out what might have happened. At the border, the filmmakers surprise us by introducing two characters who initially don’t seem to be connected to Magdalena. One is another woman also seeking her son who disappeared much earlier but who the authorities believe they have identified through DNA and blood samples. There appear to be two reasons why, for the narrative, Magdalena must meet this woman. Firstly, the woman is middle-class, an ophthalmologist, and her son went missing during a holiday driving with friends. This demonstrates the breadth of the problem of lawlessness in Northern Mexico. There are all kinds of criminal activity that can lead to ‘disappearances’ and they don’t just affect young men in poverty. Secondly, the woman convinces Magdalena not to give up in her search for her son. We don’t meet this character again, but Magdalena does indeed resolve to carry on her search. Her son is everything to her. She doesn’t have a partner.
The narrative at one point switches to a parallel strand to follow a young man who is being deported back to Mexico by American border control forces. He is advised to make a voluntary return to Mexico. Miguel is a few years older than Jésus but his story might be similar. At this point his story gives us a sense of how the border controls work and also illustrates the difference between the hi-tech drone surveillance of the Americans and the more basic conditions south of the border. We will meet Miguel later in the narrative when he and Magdalena meet near his home region. I don’t want to spoil what happens in the second half of the narrative. But I need to say that what Magdalena discovers is that in the ‘badlands’ of Chihuahua and Sonora (which are actually quite beautiful as depicted here) there are people who help her and people who are very bad indeed. The narrative ends violently and surprisingly.
Identifying Features is a film made by a creative team and crew comprising mostly women. The writers are Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Valadez directed the film and Rondero was the principal producer. In the Q&A the two women suggested that they felt more freedom to experiment when on location outside the city. This is evident in the work of cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, especially in the second half of the film where she captures long shots of landscapes very well, making good use of the ‘Scope frame and also uses shallow depth of field to explore what I understand is now termed ‘bokeh‘. This Japanese term refers to the different qualities of the blurred image produced by combinations of camera types and different lenses. These different forms of blurring can create subtle effects and here Bulos uses them in scenes featuring human figures against a background of fire at night. The effect is startling, being visually confusing but in tune with the narrative development at that point.
The tone of the film is also set by the remarkable score from the American composer Clarice Jensen, the artistic director of ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) who has worked with many international talents including Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and Björk. The trailer below gives some education of the music and cinematography in the film. Identifying Features is a very impressive film, especially for a début feature after several years working on shorts. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero worked together on shorts swapping roles on each other’s films and their next project will be directed by Rondero, I think. I enjoyed Identifying Features but it is a difficult watch at times and the closing scenes are extremely violent (but the violence is not shown directly in most cases). I hope the film gets wider distribution and I look forward to further work from the pair.
This year’s ¡Viva! festival at HOME in Manchester had to be curtailed in March when the pandemic erupted in the UK. HOME’s cinemas are now open again and the festival concluded during September. I’m still not feeling able to travel to cinemas but thanks to the festival, I’ve still got some screeners left to watch. I’ve so much enjoyed the festival over the last few years and I’ve missed the festival experience very much this time round so it’s great to have this opportunity to see some of the films.
Beyond the Mountain is a début fiction film by writer-director David R. Romay after a number of celebrated documentaries for cinema and TV with some high profile collaborators. This new film is billed as a ‘thriller’ and a ‘drama’. It’s actually quite difficult to categorise. An opening scene sees a new father leaving a maternity ward without looking in on his wife and baby son. ’18 Years Later’ we meet the boy ‘Miguel’, now grown up, and earning a living in an agency where he types letters for people with poor writing skills. He’s attracted to one of his clients, Carmela, who sends letters to her boyfriend in the north. Miguel’s mother has never really come to terms with her husband’s abrupt departure and one day Miguel comes home to find her dead, clutching a letter to his father. He decides to try and find his father, packing a pistol he finds in a drawer with some ammunition.
Over 18 years the father, Arturo, has moved around and is now in Ciudad Juárez, the city in Chihuahua on the border with Texas and facing El Paso across the Rio Grande. The city has had a terrible reputation for violence between drug cartels but in this narrative it is remarkably quiet. Miguel is able to track down Arturo and also meets up with Carmela, who is not with her boyfriend (Miguel’s letters to him were colder than those she dictated). Although Miguel finds Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), he doesn’t declare himself as Arturo’s son. The final actions of the narrative reveal, but do not directly explain, what has happened. I won’t spoil that reveal.
This is a relatively short film (around 90 minutes) that unrolls at a slow pace. It is beautifully shot in ‘Scope compositions and the final section on the border is particularly striking, reminding me in many ways of the Hollywood film Hud (1963) shot just on the other side of the border and which, now that I think about it, has some other shared elements. But though the strong aesthetic engages, the narrative requires equally strong performances to sustain it. Benny Emmanuel as Miguel is in virtually every scene and he adopts an almost anti-‘acting’ stance, looking down and taking his time to speak. He’s a good-looking young man but short and boyish, looking younger than 18. IMDb informs me that I must have seen him as a child in Sin Nombre (Mexico-US 2009). Since then he has appeared in various TV shows and films but is perhaps best known in Mexico for his social media presence, especially as co-host of a popular YouTube channel. He does well here. This is a masculine narrative about fathers and sons. It is worth noting that on his journey of ‘discovery’ Miguel is helped by two older men, one who knew his father and the other, José (Enrique Arreola), a man who offers him a job, who is simply friendly and generous. But I must agree with one reviewer that the narrative fails to develop the character of Carmela (Renée Sabina) enough. I do wonder what function her character is supposed to have in the narrative? Perhaps she had expected to find her boyfriend and cross the border into the US? I also wonder whether the narrative as a whole is a critique of Mexican men’s failure to express feelings and emotions? I understand that fathers abandoning their families is a significant problem in Mexico.
To return to the categorisation of this film, I’m not sure describing it as a thriller is helpful. Certainly it is tense for much of the time as we fear for what will happen to Miguel or what he might do. Perhaps it is more of a mystery drama? Presumably the mountain is a metaphor for Arturo’s story and Miguel has to seek what is on the other side? I enjoyed watching the film but I would have enjoyed it more on the big screen – and I’m sorry I had to miss the festival introduction by Andy Willis.
This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.
This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.
The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma).
The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.
The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?
Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.
This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.