Here and There (Aquí y Allá): Cannes Review

Aqui y Alla Cannes Critic's Week Film Still - H 2012
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Aqui y Alla Cannes Critic's Week Film Still - H 2012

Award-winning examination of migrant labor would have worked better as a documentary.

This Spanish-US co-production took top honors at the Critics' Week sidebar at Cannes, yet surprisingly says little about the hot-button subjects it ambitiously sets out to explore.

An ostentatiously downbeat peek into the life of a poor Mexican family, Antonio Méndez Esparza's Spanish-US co-production Here and There (Aquí y Allá) is attracting international attention after taking top honours in the Critics' Week sidebar at Cannes. But prospects for this patience-taxingly boilerplate example of current Latin American art-cinema are much closer to that of relatively little-seen 2009 Grand Prix winner Goodbye Gary than to 2010 scorer Armadillo or last year's big breakout Take Shelter - festival berths won't translate to much theatrical or small-screen play.

Its title, which is left deliberately untranslated on the film's digital 'print' and in the press-notes, is Spanish for "here and over there," - though Here and There has been used as a shorthand version. The "here" is a small village in the southern, sparsely-populated and mountainous Guerrero region - home to thirtyish couple Pedro (Pedro De los Santos Juárez) and Teresa (Teresa Ramírez Aguirre) and their high-schooler daughters 'Lore' (Lorena Pantaleón Vázquez) and Heidi (Heidi Solano Espinoza). The "over there" is the United States, where Pedro spends considerable spells of time as a migrant worker - the unspoken implication is that he's doing so illegally.

These periods away from home mean that Pedro barely knows his own children - as is evident from the first of the film's four chapters, 'The Return,' which takes place in the immediate aftermath of his latest stint in el Norte. Pedro tries to make ends meet doing menial jobs in the area, dividing his free time between his family and working on his own musical compositions. In part two, 'Here,' we see him performing with his band and coping with Teresa's difficult third pregnancy. In part three, 'The Horizon,' baby Luz's arrival brings further financial strain, resulting in Pedro taking the decision to return north: "I do care," he assures the distressed Teresa, "That's why I want a better life for all of you." The short final segment, 'Over There,' focusses on Lore and Heidi as they share their memories of their departed parent.

The plight of folks like Pedro isn't confined to Mexico, of course, and issues of globalized labor and cross-border movement are only going to become tougher as the impacts of the recent worldwide financial crisis bite deep. As a glum, slow-burning, austere treatment of a topical, serious issue, Aquí y Allá is guaranteed a favorable reception in many quarters - even if, in film-making terms, it's nothing we haven't seen before dozens of times (and usually done with rather more flair).

The non-professional actors, reportedly playing slight variations on themselves, are awkwardly subdued and self-conscious, and overall it might have been more productive for Méndez Esparza, whose debut feature-length work this is, had stuck to 'straight' documentary - in the vein of, say, Ed Moschitz's recent Austrian eye-opener Mama Illegal - rather than a docu-fiction hybrid.

This is also editor Filippo Conz's feature debut, and his inexperience shows in the way he lets scenes trundle on and on before cutting abruptly - resulting in a repetitive, monotonous rhythm that repels rather than compels interest, and makes it difficult to follow the chronology of a story which, judging by Luz's rapid development, takes place over a couple of years.

Frustratingly, one of the most promising sequences, in which an elderly lady wryly reminisces about bygone days, is also one of the shortest, Conz and Méndez Esparza devoting much more time to half-baked dramatic developments involving the vagaries and inadequacies of the Mexican healthcare system. And for all its makers' self-evidently admirable intentions, Aquí y Allá ends up - even at nearly two hours - saying surprisingly little about the hot-button subjects it ambitiously sets out to explore.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week), May 22, 2012.
Production companies: Aquí y Allí Films, Torch Films
Cast: Pedro De los Santos Juárez, Teresa Ramírez Aguirre, Lorena Pantaleón Vázquez, Heidi Solano Espinoza, Angel De los Santos Leyva
Director / Screenwriter: Antonio Méndez Esparza
Producers: Ori Dov Gratch, Tim Hobbs, Pedro Hernández Santos, Diana Wade, Antonio Méndez Esparza
Exective producers: Alvaro Portanet Hernández, Amadeo Hernández Bueno
Director of photography: Barbu Balasoiu
Art director: Priscilla Charles Calderón
Editor: Filippo Conz
Sales Agent: Alpha Violet, Paris
No rating, 110 minutes.