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BERLIN — A mother sends her troublesome teenage son to Mexico City where his slacker brother is nominally studying in Gueros, a picaresque, black-and-white ode to Nouvelle Vague movies from Mexican rookie director Alonso Ruizpalacios.
More of a collection of semi-improvised feeling scenes than a full-fledged narrative, this bouncy and effervescent film often has the kind of timeless charms that can also be found in the early New Wave films, even if the screenplay, set against the backdrop of the massive 1999 student protests in Mexico City, unsuccessfully tries to smuggle in a slightly more serious and topical undercurrent via the backdoor. But the director seems too enamored of the style and tone of his examples to be able to find his own cinematic sea legs, with his narrative too undisciplined and his characters too diffuse for audiences to want to stick with them for the duration of this 106-minute feature.
Nonetheless, Ruizpalacios should see a healthy festival run for his Berlinale Panorama premiere, while the presence of Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal as an associate producer suggests his directorial talents have not gone unnoticed at home, either.
The film, entirely in black-and-white and in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, bien sur, opens with a mother who takes her crying child out in a stroller, only to be bombed by a water balloon thrown by lanky Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre) from the roof of his home. The mother of the young teenager confesses she can’t deal with him anymore and sends him to Mexico City to stay with his older brother, Federico (Tenoch Huerta), who turns out to live in dilapidated apartment without electricity but with his student buddy Santos (Mexican Stephen Dorff lookalike Leonardo Ortizgris), who, like him, is stuck at home since the UNAM University is closed because of the student protests.
In what’s a good indication of the film’s drolleries, roommates Fede and Santos wonder which continent “continental breakfast” refers to and why they should ever leave the house if, after every outing, they’ve got to go back home again. But the film’s chapter headings, named after different areas in the city, betray they will actually move around quite a bit. One of the major reasons for their ambling, at least ostensibly, is their search for the golden-oldie singer Epigmenio Cruz, who’s been hospitalized and whose biggest fan, somewhat oddly, is Tomas, who listens to the one Cruz cassette he owns on repeat on his Walkman (in what is the most obvious maneuvering of the actually almost constantly manipulated soundscape, all noise entirely falls away whenever Tomas listens to his Walkman).
Also of note is the late introduction of Ana (Ilse Salas), a girl from UNAM that Federico has feelings for and who’s one of the leaders of the protests. Ruizpalacios seems to want to use Ana to make a kind of sociopolitical statement about youth and protesting (1968 is not only evoked but actually mentioned for those slow on the uptake) but apart from visually echoing Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim (Moreau and Ana wear the same striped naval top), the character is too vaguely conceived to make any directly readable points.
However, the film’s droll humor and unexpected twists go a long way towards sustaining audience interest, even if the film goes from homage into self-conscious parody territory several times, including in a scene when the director inserts himself into the proceedings, clapboard in hand, and asks the characters what they think of the film’s screenplay and again later, at a film premiere party that prompts the characters to (rather out of character) reflect on Mexican cinema.
The screenplay, by the director and Gibran Portela, could have used a bit more discipline and structure and less filler, and the actors, while certainly decent, can’t quite overcome the underwritten nature of their parts — they’re essentially required to paper over the film’s lack of narrative throughline with just their charms, which is sometimes a bridge too far.
Gueros, which means blond or light-skinned people and comes from a running gag that never quite hits the sweet spot, is otherwise expertly assembled, with Damian Garcia’s cinematography constantly finding interesting angles or juxtapositions, such as when a gang member in the backseat of the protagonists’ car seems to transform into Jesus when out of focus. Sound work is exemplary and also a source of humor, such as when the sound of the boys eating stolen carrots turns into a humorous symphony of sorts.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Catatonia Cine, Meximcine, Conaculta, Unam, Difusion Cultural
Cast: Tenoch Huerta, Sebastian Aguirre, Ilse Salas, Leonardo Ortizgris, Raul Briones, Laura Almela, Adrian Ladron, Camila Lora, Alfonso Charpener, Alonso Ruizpalacios
Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Screenwriter: Alonso Ruizpalacios, Gibran Portela
Producer: Ramiro Ruiz
Executive producers: Ramiro Ruiz, Alonso Ruizpalacios
Director of photography: Damian Garcia
Production designer: Sandra Cabriada
Music: Tomas Barreiro
Costume designer: Ingrid Sac
Editors: Yibran Asuad, Ana Garcia
No rating, 106 minutes.
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