Carmin Tropical: Morelia Review

Courtesy of Carmin Tropical
Death by voiceover

Mexican director Rigoberto Perezcano's second fearture, which took top honors at Morelia, is a murder mystery with a transgendered protagonist, played by Jose Pescina

A Mexican muxe, a physical male who dresses and acts like a woman, returns to her village of birth in Oaxaca to investigate the death of one of her fellow muxe friends in Carmin Tropical, the second feature from director Rigoberto Perezcano. As in his festival-darling debut, Northless, which looked at Mexicans looking to cross the border into the U.S., Perezcano takes a familiar story and archetypes in unexpected directions, though he's less successful here, with characters that aren't fully rounded and a voiceover that's much too present — though there is a killer ending in store that’s a real nail-biter. A winner of the top prize at the recent Morelia Film Festival, Tropical will travel to festivals and could possibly entice a few distributors who might buy into its intriguing premise.

Mabel (Jose Pescina) returns to Juchitan, her town of birth on the Pacific coast and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, when she hears that her muxe friend Dani has died. She hasn’t been back since she left, so suddenly, an unspecified amount of time earlier. Initially almost solely through a rather facile voiceover and, as the film develops, also through Mabel’s conversations with her acquaintances, a somewhat fuller picture emerges of her past as a successful nightclub singer who left Juchitan because she fell for a man and because she wanted to see more of the world and "sing in other places."

Clearly disturbed by the sudden and mysterious passing of Dani, she visits the local police who seem to have done little and know even less, the place on the beach where the body was found, Dani’s hair salon and home and, last but not least, the now-incarcerated Ruben, a colleague of the late singer who’s been arrested in connection with the crime though he confesses he’s innocent. However, and unlike in Northless, practically none of the supporting characters spring to life and there's little sense of how the wider community feels about the crime or why the police seem to get nowhere (are they transphobic or just inefficient?). The exception is the friendly and attractive cab driver, Modesto (Luis Alberti, from La Jaula de oro), who lends an ear to all of Mabel’s problems and who might even be interested in making her forget about all her troubles.

But despite giving Mabel a convenient conversation partner, that pesky voiceover just won't go away. This has the unfortunate effect of preventing the otherwise often gorgeous, though  somewhat stilted images of cinematographer Alejandro Cantu (best known for his swooping camerawork for Julian Hernandez) from advancing the plot while giving little in return. Perezcano and co-screenwriter Edgar San Juan (who also co-penned Northless) don’t give Mabel much of an inner life or clearly readable psychology, though Pescina oozes charisma and demonstrates an innate inquisitiveness and steely determination that suit the character well.

The paradisiacal side of Juchitan thus remains largely a beautiful backdrop for dark and ugly actions that seem to have been committed there but that remain more talked about than shown — at least until the breathtaking final scene, which can be seen from miles away but which is handled with such aplomb it nonetheless hits the bull’s eye. It’s a shame the rest of the film lacks the finesse of the final sequence, which brings together psychology, drama and anticipation in one striking image and an even more striking cut to black.

Production companies: Cinepantera, Foprocine, Tiburon Filmes

Cast: Jose Pescina, Luis Alberti, Juan Carlos Medellin, Marco Petriz, Everardo Trejo

Director: Rigoberto Perezcano

Screenplay: Rigoberto Perezcano, Edgar San Juan

Producers: Rigoberto Perezcano, Jaime B. Ramos, Christian Valdelievre, Cristina L. Velasco

Co-producer: Fernando Eimbcke

Director of photography: Alejandro Cantu

Production designer: Ivonne Fuentes

Costume designer: Laura Garcia de la Mora

Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger

Music: Luca Ortega

Casting: Viridiana Olvera


No rating, 80 minutes