The beaten-down life of an aging undocumented Mexican migrant slowly falls apart under the bright California sky in Lupe Under the Sun, in which Rodrigo Reyes returns in a less hard-hitting, more gently human way to issues explored in his fine, more explicitly symbolic 2013 docu Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border. A minor-key companion piece to the earlier film, this attempt to demonstrate the intimate reality of the migrant experience — at a moment when such experience needs to be documented — is tightly-focused and stripped back, and clearly driven by a respect and understanding of its central figure which go a long way to making up for the film’s flaws. Lupe confirms Reyes as a poetic chronicler of migrant experience, and looks set to follow Purgatory out onto the festival circuit.
The film is topped and tailed by the voiceover of a young girl, in whose memory her absent grandfather Lupe lives on. The life of Lupe himself (non-pro Daniel Muratalla) seems to have become the very embodiment of machine-like resignation, presumably since he has lived his whole life as a secondary citizen: each morning he rises at precisely 4 am and makes himself a fried egg sandwich before being driven, from his home in the town of Planada, out to a farm where perches on a rickety ladder and hand-harvests peaches all day, backbreaking work even for a younger man than he is. In the background are the machines which presumably mean that Lupe’s days of employment are anyway numbered.
His partner is the sublimely patient, long-suffering Gloria (Ana Muratalla, presumably the actor’s real-life partner). Lupe travels slowly around on a rather fetching tricycle, with rear and traveling shots redolent of David Lynch’s The Straight Story. He is of course in the US because of the limited economic opportunities available to him at home, and in this regard he also encapsulates the terrible paradox at the heart of the migrant experience — that you’re working yourself to the bone to send money back to loved ones who you never see. This sense of absence hangs heavy over the film.
After falling and visiting a doctor who diagnoses him as being overweight and with high blood pressure, Lupe decides that it’s time to return to Mexico. But again paradoxically, it’s after he seeks to take control of things, at about the halfway point, that his misfortunes start to pile up. A pathetic little phone call home reveals that his family have now got through the worst of it and, after so long, no longer wish to see him again. He stops visiting Gloria; he loses his job, his tricycle is stolen.
Lupe meets every new disaster with the same phlegmatic reaction, though it does look as though the loss of his bicycle brings him briefly to tears. Presumably it’s his (heavily underscored) religious faith which gets him through, but sometimes the viewer wishes for him just to be a little more pro-active in making the best of things. And finally, in his own way, he is.
In its mixture of documentary and fiction — though it’s so lightly-plotted that it’s the docu, authentically-lived feel which predominates — Lupe is reminiscent of another well-received migrant drama of immigration, Antonio Mendez Esparza’s less spartan Aqui y Alli (2012). In both films the political aspect of migration is handled only obliquely, though both are shot through with the tragic sense of characters living their lives without the slightest understanding of the political forces which brought them here. It’s the subtle little poetic touches which make Lupe stand out: a hand briefly stroking a face, a beautifully iconic shot of two aging lovers by a tree. As in Purgatory, Reyes’s cameraman Justin Chin eschews hand-held in favor of elegant framing which suggest that we are not dealing with transitory political issues, but with permanent, human ones.
The pace is slow, particularly through the first half, when the grinding tedium of Lupe’s day-to-day risks becoming a similar experience for the viewer, and the effect is not alleviated by the use of sometimes stock imagery: the sprinklers in the fields and the close-ups of the Virgin Mary are immigrant drama standbys, while the time is surely ripe for an embargo on vertical shots of frying eggs. But superb editing, often abruptly, and straight to black – ensures that the pacing, while never snappy, is at least always appropriate.
Dialogue is limited, which is frustrating at some points — why does Lupe so steadfastly refuse to engage in real conversation with Gloria, while he seems happy to do so in one scene with his card-playing buddies? (Their sudden appearance late on in the film seems to contradict the sense of isolation which he carries with him, and which is so important to the film’s effect).
Natural sunlight dominates Chin’s visuals and justifies the title: the sun is just one more thing permanently beating down on Lupe’s head. The atmospherics of semi-abandoned border locations are often hauntingly evoked as no-man’s lands, appropriately inhabited by immigrants who are, like Lupe, dangerously close to being no-men. German Lied based on nineteenth-century poems by Adelbert von Chamisso are intermittently used to powerful effect, rare, showy flourishes in a film which otherwise suppresses them.
Production company: RR Cinema
Cast: Daniel Muratalla, Ana Muratalla
Director, screenwriter: Rodrigo Reyes
Producers: Su Kim, Justin Chin, Pablo Mondragon
Executive producer: Inti Cordera, Mario Alcala Russi
Director of photography: Justin Chin
Editor: Manuel Tsingaris
Composer: Pablo Mondragon
Sales: RR Cinema
No rating, 78 minutes