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KARLOVY VARY — Two very different women carry a baby from the same guy in Perpetual Sadness (La Tirisia), the second feature from Mexican writer-director Jorge Perez Solano. Set in the sparsely populated state of Oaxaca, in Southwestern Mexico, this beautifully photographed drama initially plays like a study of how to look pretty while pregnant amid the cacti and salt pans. But when the relationships of the protagonists finally start to crystallize, the drama and characters become both more complex and involving. This well-acted, female-centered production could find some traction as a niche item after premieres at Guadalajara, where it won best actor, and Karlovy Vary.
In the opening chapter, “May: Month of the Holy Mary,” Cheba (Adriana Paz) finds herself giving birth alone, on her kitchen floor. Since she lives in the middle of nowhere, this is not all that unusual, though as the months pass it becomes clearer that Cheba is indeed very lonely, with only her two small children and a gay male friend (Noe Hernandez) for company. It emerges that Cheba’s husband (Alfredo Herrera) has temporarily left home to make money elsewhere, probably in the U.S.
The situation is quite different for the equally pregnant but younger Angeles Miguel (Gabriela Cartol), who lives in the same area as Cheba with her mom (Mercedes Hernandez) and her stepfather, Silvestre (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), who runs a salt harvesting business. It takes a couple of chapters — and thus months — for all the relationships to fully emerge, making it clear that Silvestre is the father of Cheba’s newborn, as well as both the step-grandfather and father of Angeles’s unborn child.
Instead of words, Solano often resorts to images to suggest emotions and unspoken feelings, such as when Cheba gives her nursling to Angeles so she can hold him, and Angeles — who, unlike Cheba, wasn’t a willing partner for Silvestre — gives the baby back straight away, suggesting with a single movement that she’s not ready for motherhood, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with her stepfather’s offspring in particular.
A couple of scenes involving an umbilical cord infuse plot necessities with a dash of visual poetry while also illustrating the perpetual sadness of the title, an “illness of the soul” that signifies “an absence of spirit,” according to an onscreen explanation. Brilliant cinematographer Cesar Guitierrez Miranda, who also shot Solano’s first film, Spiral, as well as Jose Luis Valle’s recent arthouse hits Workers and The Searches, knows how to get the best out of each frame and thankfully doesn’t hold any shot for longer than necessary. But because a lot of narrative information is initially withheld, the film feels extremely slow-moving until things start to pick up just before the halfway point.
The always-reliable Parra (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Leap Year) plays another complex, largely silent man, but the film really belongs to the leading ladies. Paz is exceptional as a passionate woman who has needs and desires of her own but who’s boxed in by society’s rigid expectations for her gender. Cartol plays someone from the opposite side of the spectrum, a victim of a man’s desires and her own mother’s crushing expectations (the latter a subject that could have been fleshed out more).
In Oaxaca’s arid hills, dominated by phallic cacti and macho values, it’s clearly not easy to be a member of the fairer sex. Solano and production designer Lola Ovando stress how few people live in this vast, wide-open area and how corrupt men dominate everything by staging events such as political rallies, religious events and even random road blocks. Tellingly, when the politician sees there’s barely a soul at his rally, he doesn’t even bother to get out of his car. So much for the better future promised on his posters.
Production companies: Foprocine, Tirisia Cine, Imcine-Conaculta
Cast: Gustavo Sanchez Parra, Adriana Paz, Noe Hernandez, Gabriela Cartol, Mercedes Hernandez, Alfredo Herrera
Writer-Director: Jorge Perez Solano
Producer: Cesar Gutierrez Miranda, Jorge Perez Solano
Director of photography: Cesar Guitierrez Miranda
Production designer: Lola Ovando
Costume designer: Alfredo Martinez
Editor: Francisco X. Rivera
Composer: Ruben Luengas
Sales: Media Luna New Films
No rating, 110 minutes
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