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Middle-aged hussies and mask-wearing midgets don’t mix in Bleak Street (La calle de la amargura), from Mexican, Spain-based veteran Arturo Ripstein. As stylish as a Salgado photograph and populated with carnivalesque characters that seem to have escaped from the movies of Fellini and Pasolini, this Mexico City-set fable, inspired by a true story, features two aging whores who, using eye drops, accidentally kill two dwarf brothers who work as lucha libre mascots. Truth is indeed sometimes stranger than fiction but Ripstein struggles here to turn his odd collection of two-dimensional characters into real people. What does impress is the gorgeously crisp black-and-white cinematography, which deserves to be seen on the big screen, though that’s most likely to happen at festivals, such as Venice and Toronto, rather than in regular release.
La Akita (Guillermo Lopez) and Muerte Chiquita (Juan Francisco Longoria) are twin brothers and little people who work as the diminutive mascots for the normal-sized lucha libre fighters AK-47 and La Muerte (“Death”). They are so into their stage personas, they never take their masks off, even at home (when they have a drink they only lift their mascaras up to their noses). They are small, male and, though adults, relatively young. Their polar opposites are Dora (Nora Velazquez) and Adela (Patricia Reyes Spindola), two streetwalkers well past their prime who complain about getting less and less work and who see the best street corners being distributed to younger prostitutes by a screechy madam. “Doesn’t experience count for anything?” one of them asks. The answer is a straightforward “No.”
The brothers want to celebrate a win in the ring and that’s how the unlikely foursome ends up in a squalid, by-the-hour hotel room. But before the screenplay, written by Paz Alicia Garciadiego, Ripstein’s partner and frequent screenwriter, finally gets the four characters together, it spends way too much time with supporting characters that are meant to provide the film with a sense of place (not for nothing the title includes the word “street”). Though it offers a perfunctory sense of the struggles of the city’s poor and the marginalized to make some money and survive another day, the problems of the family members and acquaintances of the prostitutes and twins aren’t particularly involving or illuminating. What’s worse, the time spent with them means there’s less time for what feels like the four protagonists of the story, who end up being two-dimensional outlines rather than real people.
It also doesn’t help that two of them hide behind masks, which makes it impossible to see their facial expressions, which might betray something of their humanity in the way the lines on the faces of Dora and Adela help tell at least some of their tragic story. Only toward the end, there’s a sense, like in a lot of Ripstein’s films, that destiny played a large role in how the events played out, as if things were on an inevitable collision course from the start. But in almost everything that precedes the last few scenes, people simply seem to be muddling along rather than actually unable to control their own destiny, a small but crucial difference. Combined with the limited investment the audience has in the barely sketched-out characters, it makes for somewhat detached viewing, which makes it impossible to see this curious collection of lowlifes as real people heading for a tragedy that’s made even more tragic because it was an accident (the women just wanted to drug the men so they could run off with their money).
The main reason to see Bleak Street is without a doubt the contribution of cinematographer Alejandro Cantu, perhaps most famous internationally for his graceful Steadicam work on the films of Julian Hernandez (Raging Sun, Raging Sky) and certainly one of the most talented directors of cinematography of the Americas. For his second collaboration with Ripstein, after 2011’s equally monochrome Reasons of the Heart, Cantu captures the bleak streets of the title in long, gracefully choreographed shots that create an entire world out of light, shadows and textures. If only the characters that populate the gorgeous images were worth caring about.
Production companies: Productora 35, Wanda Vision, Ibermedia
Cast: Juan Francisco Longoria, Guillermo Lopez, Patricia Reyes Spindola, Nora Velazquez, Sylvia Pasquel, Arcelia Ramirez, Alejandro Suarez, Alberto Estrella, Erando Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Longoria, Guillermo Lopez
Director: Arturo Ripstein
Screenplay: Paz Alicia Garciadiego
Producers: Walter Navas, Arturo Ripstein
Executive producers: Xanat Briceno, Luis Alberto Estrada
Director of photography: Alejandro Cantu
Production designer: Marisa Pecanins
Costume designer: Laura Garcia de la Mora
Editors: Carlos Puente, Arturo Ripstein
Casting: Manuel Teil
No rating, 99 minutes
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