The Desert Within

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Cannes Film Festival, Critics' Week

 

Rodrigo Pla's "The Desert Within" ("Desierto Adentro") is a powerful fable about the obsessive pursuit of redemption and the toll it takes on all concerned. Following hard on the heels of his award-winning "La Zona," the movie places Pla in the front rank of Mexico's current cinematic resurgence and will play well in all Spanish-speaking territories, not to mention arthouse cinemas elsewhere.

The movie opens on a shot of a man carving a series of altar-pieces in a country church, then flashes back to 1926 for the first of four chapters -- each given a heading: sin, penance, the sign, and the pardon that never comes -- which spreads the action over two decades.

In the beginning is an action by the protagonist Elias (Mario Zaragoza) during the peasant uprising of that year. This results in the destruction of the local San Isidro church and the death of innumerable townspeople, including his wife (in childbirth), one of his sons and the local priest.

Fearing divine retribution against his surviving children, including the newly-born Aureliano (named after the son who died), Elias devotes his life to restoring the old church to its former splendor. The story unfolds as seen from the point of view of Aureliano (Diego Catano) who provides occasional voice-over commentary and who we at last realize to be the altar-piece craftsman.

The movie has epic sweep, particularly the early scenes in which the issues of faith and conscience are presented with an intensity worthy of a Graham Greene. There are frequent religious references but without religiosity.

Pla uses a limited color palette with an emphasis on browns and olive greens, amid rain and mud in the opening chapter and parched desert at the close. At moments he also uses animated inserts, a device which might have been irritating but which, in context, appears fitting.

By the close Elias has become a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, and Pla ends this absorbing movie with the Nietzsche epigraph from which it draws its title: "The desert grows, and woe to him who conceals the desert within him..."

Production company: Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE), Beret Films.
Cast: Mario Zaragoza, Diego Catano, Memo Dorantes, Eileen Yanez, Luis Fernando Pena, Jimena Ayala, Katia Xanat Espino.
Director: Rodrigo Pla.
Screenwriters: Rodrigo Pla, Laura Santullo.
Producers: German Mendez, Rodrigo Pla.
Photography: SergueiHeiblum Saldivar Tanaka.
Editor: Ana Garcia, Rodrigo Pla.
Production design: Gloria Carrasco, Antonio Pla, Juan Jose Medina, Rita Basulto
Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leonardo.
Sales: FilmSharks International
No rating, 112 minutes.

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