'Before the Rooster Sings' ('Antes Que Cante El Gallo'): Panama Review

Panama International Film Festival
No country for young women.

Second outing for a director whose 2012 debut, 'Under My Nails,' was a New York Latino Film Festival winner.

A coming-of-ager that’s often as clammy, uncomfortable and raw as the Puerto Rican jungle village in which it unfolds, Before the Rooster Crows is about a teenage girl’s sexual awakening. If that sounds yawn-inspiring as a theme then indeed it is, and the events which make up the heroine’s self-learning curve are indeed deja vu. But Ari Maniel Cruz’s distinctive treatment, fusing strong, earthy performances, particularly from the young lead, intense atmospherics, and a frankly bizarre background, add up to a quietly evocative whole shot through with the hard-to-achieve air of directly recorded experience. The film’s appeal to Latin American programmers is already proven, though hopefully festivals beyond the standard circuit will be prepared to hear Rooster sing.

Events, God help her, are based on the life of screenwriter Kisha Tikina Burgos. We first see 14 year-old Carmin (Miranda Purcell) running from a school concert rather than having to sing at it, and it quickly becomes clear that this is not because she’s shy but because she’s entering a rebellious young womanhood. Carmin’s family life is charged with the potential for future bad things: in the first few minutes, her pregnant mother Doris (Burgos) runs away to Florida with her boyfriend, leaving the pleading Carmina to be looked after by her grandmother Gloria (Cordelia Gonzalez). Gloria lives in a frankly fabulous mountainside house, but she hates Carmin and  longs for the return of her ne’er do well son, Carmin’s father Ruben (Jose Eugenio Hernandez). So far, so much shouting and screaming.

Carmen makes a half-hearted attempt to run away, but it comes to nothing. She spends her days attending  bizarre Catholic ceremonies amongst the palm trees, which feature a blind apparition of the Virgin Mary who follows up prayer meetings by having car-seat sex with local men (such apparitions are not recognized by the Catholic church but are all the rage in Puerto Rican villages like this one), and hanging around with a boy who has a crush on her but who looks about 12.

So when Ruben returns -- a definitive ne’er do well,with his glinting eyes, goatee beard and a general aura of seductive danger which later turns out to be a mask for his complete idiocy -- Carmin hormones go into overdrive. Suddenly she is rather confused, which happens when the only person around you who you find sexually attractive happens to be your own father -- who also appears to have no problem flirting with you under the approving gaze of your grandmother. In fact, parenthood in this part of the world being a sometimes ambiguous thing, neither father or daughter are quite sure that they actually are father and daughter at all. Cruz does good work, through scenes of ambiguous intimacy, of building up the scary possibility via a barely-concealed eroticism which suggests that at some point, Ruben and his daughter will throw caution to the wind and do the taboo.

Camera work is often intimate hand held, strongly transmitting the pulsating sense of violence which seems to underlie these relationships and which plays out against a palette of intense, dripping reds and greens. It’s a particular, non-urban violence which is caused by people’s adhering too closely to the roles which society has foisted on them, so that Ruben is machista to excess while Gloria's anger sstems from Carmin’s refusal to play the stereotypical daughter. Behind all this are the oppressions of a culture which is having real problems moving forward: if you’re drunk and raped at your birthday party by an unknown man, as Carmin is at one point, then that’s just how it is round these parts, and it's never mentioned again. Far from being a bucolic paradise, this is one rural location that's seriously screwed up.

As the title implies, great attention is paid to the sound work. There is never a rooster too far away, with all the Biblical symbolism which that rather ploddingly implies, and the noise is so insistent as to make of the jungle a kind of aural prison from which escape seems impossible: the sounds of daybreak as Carmin walks along a jungle path are loud enough to of themselves be a kind of violence. They also makes for a more integrated and appropriate score than Eduardo Cabra's plucked guitar, which is overused.

The first-timer Purcell delivers one of those performances whose inexpressiveness is deliberately chosen to hide the permanent maelstrom of emotions churning over inside her. It’s charged with something which comes over in the radiance of her face, which only occasionally forgetfully breaks out into a half-smile -- a half-smile made the more striking because of the rarity of its appearance.

Biblical references apart, the title is a Puerto Rican expression signifying that a woman has menstruated for the first time.

Production company: Deluz
Cast: Miranda Purcel, Cordelia Gonzalez, Jose Eugenio Hernandez, Kisha Tikina Burgos
Director: Ari Maniel Cruz
Screenwriters: Kisha Tikina Burgos
Producer: Esteban Lima
Director of photography: Santiago Benet Mari
Production designer: Mayna Magruder
Editor: Andrei Nemcik
Composer: Eduardo Cabra
Sales: Deluz

No rating, 97 minutes

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