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MORELIA — A heavily indebted Mexican youngster finds a job as a call-center employee of a shady Christian cult in Gonzalez, from Chilean-born, Mexico-educated director Christian Diaz Pardo.
Prolific Mexican actor Harold Torres (Sin Nombre, Northless, the recent Potosi), who’s also credited as one of the producers, plays the eponymous protagonist of this cautionary tale of sorts, in which temptation and the devil’s work are much more common than piety — though there’s some of that, too — and though he’s rock solid, he’s almost upstaged at every turn by charismatic Spanish character actor Carlos Bardem (Javier’s older brother, from Cell 211), whose portrayal of an oily televangelist is the film’s clear standout.
This beautifully photographed first feature, with its rather unusual theme if unfortunately not all-that-unusual denouement, should have no problems exciting festival programmers and niche distributors alike.
The most precious thing the young and handsome if solitary Gonzalez Gonzalez (Torres) possesses must be his flat-screen TV, which he protects with a plastic cover whenever he doesn’t use it and for which he no-doubt paid through the nose. When the film opens, however, Gonzalez is without a job and the TV, or rather the debts it has caused, are turning into a noose around the protagonist’s neck, forcing him to lie to his mother, who asks for her monthly check from him on the phone, and desperately interviewing for a new job — any job, as unpaid bills keep accumulating.
His financial dire straits lead him right into the arms of an unnamed church in Mexico City that’s lead by the charismatic Brazilian televangelist Pastor Elias (Bardem). Gonzalez is assigned to work in the institution’s call center, where the standard advice to any sort of woes from the calling customers is simple: if you give (money) to God through the church, God will eventually give back.
Though he’s clearly come to the capital from elsewhere and has no friends or relatives he can fall back on, Gonzalez is far from stupid. He’s initially a pragmatist, simply happy to have a job, and when he’s figured out what the uhm, hell is going on, he wants in on the money-grabbing scheme and tries to convince Elias he can be a pastor, too.
The set-up is surprisingly straightforward and rich with possibilities, especially when Gonzalez becomes interested in the shy and beautiful Betsabe (Olga Segura), a co-worker who, despite her behind-the-scenes job begging callers in distress for cash, is clearly a devout believer and a fan of Elias.
But Diaz Pardo, who wrote the screenplay with Fernando del Razo (Artificial Paradises), makes it quite hard to figure out what’s really driving Gonzalez and whether most of his rash actions in the film’s second half are planned or improvised. In fact, he becomes difficult to read quite early on, when the film introduces something of a red herring when it appears the church isn’t paying Gonzalez his salary, suggesting they’re also duping their own employees, which creates fake suspense as this turns out to be untrue.
Still, many individual sequences crackle with a nervy kind of energy, especially those which feature Torres and Bardem together. Arguably, Bardem has never been better than here, as a skilled opportunist who knows what disadvantaged people want to hear while at the same time ensuring that what they do will make him a tidy profit. The audience will also share Gonzalez’s fascination with and attraction to Bestabe, though she remains an unfortunately underdeveloped character.
Technical contributions are very impressive for a first feature. Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez Ibanez, who also shot the beautiful-looking but formally much looser Las lagrimas, here shows off his impeccable sense of composition and a rich use of colors, with velvety reds and rich blacks and beautiful use of light. Galo Duran’s score, quite minimalist and dominated by a jazzy bassline, is refreshingly counter-intuitive.
Venue: Morelia Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Foprocine, Chacal Films, Echesa
Cast: Harold Torres, Olga Segura, Carlos Bardem, Gaston Peterson
Director: Christian Diaz Pardo
Screenwriters: Fernando del Razo, Christian Diaz Pardo
Producers: Laura Pino, Carlos Taibo, Harold Torres
Director of photography: Juan Pablo Ramirez Ibanez
Production designer: Alisarine Ducolomb
Music: Galo Duran
Editor: Leon Gonzalez
No rating, 101 minutes.
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