Sunday, September 20, 2009

TIFF '09: "Without patience you can't be a fisherman..." Two new films from Mexico

My most treasured discovery at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival came from Mexican filmmaker Rigoberto Pérezcano, whose previous film,
XV en Zaachila, was, quite tellingly, a documentary. Northless, co-written by Pérezcano with his producer Edgar San Juan, is imbued with a vivid and intimate sense of place, even if its themes finally have something to do with the difficulty of finding a place where one truly belongs. It follows its protagonist Andrés (Harold Torres, marvelous) from his native Oaxaca to Tijuana, where he makes a series of fumbling attempts to illegally enter the US but unintentionally begins cultivating an attachment to a handful of individuals who give him work, food, and shelter while he comes up with his next scheme to trespass the frontier.

Its interesting to note that the Spanish title of the film is
Norteado, which means to be disoriented, or without a compass, or without a sense of north. The English title, though clearly an inaccurate translation, actually strikes me as the richer one, because it makes the north seem like a paradise, which is to say a place that doesn’t really exist, and it renders Andrés a man who is missing something, who suffers from the absence of some state of being he seems to think is necessary for living. His ostensible destination feels increasingly abstract as the story goes on, and his glimpses of it are delivered in a very amusing sort of shorthand—side-by-side headshots of George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger—whereas the transitory life he establishes along the border—the most northernmost point he seems able to get to—grows only more welcoming.

What makes the film such a refreshing take on the border-crossing genre is above all its tone. About a third of the way through I suddenly became aware of the fact that the film wasn’t a drama but a comedy, albeit of a very subtle, unassuming kind, pitched somewhere between Jim Jarmusch and Charles Burnett in its use of deadpan humour, static images, repetition, seductive music, and situational comedy. There’s a tremendous warmth that emanates from the film once we get to the scene where our hero finds himself sitting in the front seat of a truck, drinking cans of Tecate and eating peanuts with the older woman who’s taken him in, partly out of kindness and partly out of reasons of her own. The film builds to a climatic sequence that’s too inventive and hilarious to spoil here. I hope you’ll have a chance to see it, and since the latest rumours have it that Mantarraya might be coming on as distributors, the chances seem decent.

I was less impressed with
To the Sea, the Mexican film about three generations of men living in a remote fishing community in the Caribbean. I know many people who were deeply impressed by this work, but its beauty struck me as being strictly of the postcard variety, a very conventional perspective on an obviously wildly gorgeous locale. (Young filmmakers should always be leery of locations that offer nothing but spectacular beauty.) The child featured in the film, as well as the egret he befriends, are wonderfully natural presences on screen, but I couldn’t help but feel astonished by how little writer/director Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio brings to the proceedings. His hand as filmmaker is so light it barely seems to exist. It becomes difficult to believe that the characters wouldn’t have more to work out between them. I genuinely believe that Gonzalez-Rubio spent a lot of time with his subjects, got to know them and their lifestyle well. I just can’t believe the dearth of insight into their characters’ experiences he managed to conjure on film. To the Sea feels like a hybrid of a nature documentary and a home movie, but I have to say that I’ve seen better nature documentaries, and I’ve even seen better home movies. Incidentally, this film was in fact produced and will be distributed under the auspices of Mantarraya, though I’m not certain how they plan to get it out to a larger public.

More TIFF notes still to come...

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