Through the Eyes (A los ojos): Morelia Review

Half a good film -- too bad one has to sit through the boring half first.

"After Lucia" director Michel Franco teams up with his filmmaker sister, Victoria, for a documentary-like drama starring Monica del Carmen as a Mexico City social worker.

A saintly seeming social worker from Mexico City turns out to be anything but in Through the Eyes (A los ojos), from filmmaking siblings Victoria and Michel Franco (the latter won the Cannes Un Certain Regard prize for his hard-hitting yet naturalistic bullying drama After Lucia just last year).

This is the first fiction feature for Victoria, who comes from a documentary background, and the third for Michel, after Lucia and his feature debut, Daniel & Ana (which, incidentally, took a sibling relationship into really disturbing territory). Michel’s matter-of-fact and minimalist approach to narrative is again contrasted with the ugly reality of human nature here, though this film isn't quite as effective as his previous work because of a major structural flaw. Nonetheless, the again shocking topic and Franco’s growing reputation should help get this Morelia Film Festival world premiere noticed internationally, with wide festival play likely.

Michel’s slowly carving out a niche for himself as a detached chronicler of the bleak realities of Mexico, and his sister’s documentary experience seems to fit snugly alongside his own sensibilities, which can be described as the kind of understated realism that throws the observed human behavior into high relief. Because individual actions are foregrounded so clearly, the films also ensure that blame doesn’t simply go to a society as a whole but is evenly distributed between the system and its constituent parts: individuals. That said, the Francos' style is less obviously cinematic than that of some of their contemporaries, such as Amat Escalante, whose hyper-realistic Heli competed in Cannes this year, which makes the Fracos' work an even tougher sell. 

Monica (Monica del Carmen) is a social worker in Mexico City who works with the homeless, including addicts and pregnant women, two groups that more than occasionally overlap. She’s also the single mom of an 11-year-old boy, Omar (Omar Moreno), who has keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease. Omar needs a transplant soon or he’ll go blind, but the bureaucratic system in Mexico seems to make this impossible even for the son of a woman who, with the utmost patience and care, looks after those in society that are much worse off than most. These early scenes of Monica at work have the strongest documentary flavor, with many of them shot on the streets with what feels like real people and locations.  

In Michel’s screenplay, there’s particular attention on a young drug addict, Benjamin (Benjamin Espinoza), who’s allowed to temporarily reside in a tiny room on the roof of the building where Monica lives, an act that, for the first half of the film, seems to underline just how devoted she is to her work. Snippets of what he gets up to during the day are occasionally edited in, too, though they only become meaningful after the halfway mark, when the Francos connect the two stories in a very logical but horribly appalling way.

This throws everything that has come before in a very different light and turns Monica from an angelic social worker into a deeply flawed human being and monstrous mother, which certainly makes her more interesting as a character. However, the strategically placed reveal at the 45-minute mark only leaves half of the film to observe Monica’s true nature and etch in finer character details -- at least for those who haven’t bailed on the character by then since she’s shown no development at all for the first half.

This would be a shame, as she does develop into a fascinating character full of contradictions in the second three-quarters of an hour, and even Benjamin and Omar start to slowly break loose from their initially very one-dimensional molds, with all three of the actors solidly inhabiting their characters.

The medium-quality digital camera work of cinematographer Isi Sarfati is straightforward and reinforces, like the total absence of any type of score, the film’s verité credentials; too bad it takes half of the running time for things to finally become interesting.  

Venue: Morelia Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Lucia Films, Pop Films

Cast: Monica del Carmen, Omar Moreno, Benjamin Espinoza, Jacobo Najman

Directors: Michel Franco, Victoria Franco

Screenwriter: Michel Franco

Producers: Michel Franco, Victoria Franco, Moises Zonana, Elias Menasse

Director of photography: Isi Sarfati

Production designer: Jesus Aramburu

Editor: Michel Franco, Antonio Bribiesca

No rating, 92 minutes.