'The Awakening of the Ants' ('El Despertar de la Hormigas'): Film Review

Courtesy of Solita Films
Understated and emotionally intelligent.

Costa Rican Antonella Sudasassi’s first feature depicts the struggles of a young woman to escape the shackles of family.

The hesitant steps toward liberation of a young wife and mother are depicted with subtlety and sensitivity in The Awakening of the Ants, the debut from Costa Rican Antonella Sudasassi. Though its concerns might seem déjà vu to English-speaking auds who claim to live in societies where machismo is on the wane — awakening has been a key feminist trope at least as far back as Kate Chopin — the troubling domestic experiences of its heroine continue to be more universal than we’d like to believe, making Ants one of those stories that always needs telling.

Sudasassi tells hers with a compassion and an eye for detail that have been garnering fest plaudits, including a Jury Award at the recent Seattle Film Festival following its Berlin debut earlier in the year.

The first scene tells us most of what we need to know about young mom-of-two Isabel (Daniella Valenciano), the camera trained on her as she tries to bake a birthday cake (symbolically displaying a cross) as behind her the chaos of family life messily plays out. Inevitably her mother-in-law shows her how it should be done, after which Isabel plunges her hands into the cake, destroying it. But it's not real — this is the first of several moments of escapist fantasy for Isabel, and life goes on.

Poor (but not impoverished), religious and traditional, her family, headed by husband Alcides (Leynar Gomez) and including her two daughters Valery (Isabella Moscoso) and Nicole (Avril Alpizar), put pressure on Isabel to have a third child, without, of course, thinking about what that might imply for her. The story of Ants — famously creatures that mechanically and tirelessly do what is expected of them for the good of their society — is basically the story of how Isabel chips away at building a personal space from which she can resist what’s being demanded of her. She daringly starts to put aside some of her earnings from her work as a (hemmed-in) seamstress, so that she can afford to buy anti-contraceptive pills: In Ants, apparently small gestures of rebellion feel like major risks.

The chit-chat of everyday family life is well-rendered, but once or twice the dialogue goes a bit flat and would have benefited from being edited down. Likewise the metaphors, starting with the ants themselves, which are there to be seen in increasing numbers as things go on, are laid on with a trowel. But the upside of this is that Sudasassi’s ideas sometimes flower into memorable and striking images: One shot of mom, Valery and Nicole sitting in a line having their hair braided might be a first understood as a visual celebration of mother/sister affection, but it comes across as a delicate and subtle image of imprisonment. You could write a dissertation on how Sudasassi handles the cultural significance of hair in this movie.

Visually, much ironic use is made of the bright Costa Rican light and strong shadows that might suggest an altogether sunnier kind of movie. But another trope is that of flickering light bulbs that continually threaten to peter out, as tellingly happens during a sex scene between Isabel and Alcides.

It is not her family that are making Isabel miserable — it’s the idea of family itself. Alcides, Isabel’s unthinking husband, is no villain, and is shown to be just as much of a victim of outmoded Latin cultural concepts, namely machismo, as Isabel is — except, of course, that he’s on the winning side.

The kids are wonderful in their naturalness, and in their scenes The Awakening of the Ants achieves the humor and warmth of good documentary. At the film’s heart, Valenciano is superb in a role that calls on her to communicate a world of frustrated inner misery without ever expressing it out loud. By the time the pic’s wonderfully understated and potent final family scene comes around, Isabel’s initially baffled expression might have given way to something more confident, but there is still the sense that in wanting her freedom, she’s doing something wrong. She ends the movie as she began it — as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Production companies: Betta Films, Solita
Cast: Daniella Valenciano, Leynar Gomez, Isabella Moscoso, Avril Alpizar, Adriana Alvarez, Carolina Fernandez, Katia Arce
Director-screenwriter: Antonella Sudasassi
Producer: Amaya Izquierdo
Executive producer: Jose Esteban Alenda
Director of photography: Andres Campos
Art director: Laura Castillo
Costume designer: Ruth Vargas
Editor: Raul de Torres
Composer: Sergio de la Puente
Sales: Figa Films

94 minutes