The Life After (La vida despues): Morelia Review

An intimate family drama that's a promising debut despite a drift into more perfunctory material.

Mexican director David Pablos casts Maria Renee Prudencio as a distraught mother and Americo Hollander and Rodrigo Azuela as her teenage sons.

Two Mexican teenagers are abandoned by their manic-depressive mom who can’t deal with the death of her own father in The Life After (La vida despues), the generally promising debut of Mexican director David Pablos.

Though many of the story beats are familiar, especially once the siblings go on a cross-country road trip, the characterizations are spot on and the trio of actors superb. The film explores what kind of loyalty, if any, can be expected from people who happen to be one’s next of kin, a complex subject that Pablos tackles with the boundless energy of a young filmmaker but not quite the intensity and depth a more experienced filmmaker (and probably a more experienced human being) could’ve brought to the material.

Life has been a popular fall festival item, calling at the Venice and Rio fests before its national premiere at the Morelia Film Festival. Niche engagements, especially in Spanish-language territories, are a possibility.

The film opens with a flashback to a moment at the beach, when mom Silvia (Maria Renee Prudencio) beatifically floats in the sea during a summery downpour while her sons, Rodrigo and Samuel, play nearby. Pablos’s mise-en-scene makes it clear she feels so alive that it’ll probably be the last time we’ll see her in any state of bliss and, indeed, Silvia attends the funeral of her father in a subsequent scene. Her boys are too young to understand what’s really happening and are initially unaware of the cause of their grandpa’s death, with the film sticking close to the kids’ point of view from the start.

The narrative proper kicks off some 20 minutes in and a good decade later, on the 18th birthday of Rodrigo (Rodrigo Azuela), who’s become a grouchy and recalcitrant smoker on whose ashen-colored face pimples and the beginning of a stubble battle each other for supremacy. Samuel (Americo Hollander), about 15 or thereabout, is more innocent not only in his ways but also in his appearance, with skin as smooth as marble and a head of Greek God-like curls to match.

Rodrigo’s in full-on, refusal-of-parental-authority mode, though more than an adolescent’s whims, it’s clear his behavior can at least partially be blamed on his developing sense of self-preservation, as Silvia still hasn’t recovered from the loss of her father a decade on. Samuel’s reacted very differently to the situation; rather than seeking solace in independence, he’s drawn closer to his mother, about whom he eternally worries.  

When Silvia leaves a simple note to say she’s left, it’s Samuel who has to convince his brother they need to go and look for her. Their destination: their late grandfather’s house on the other side of the country -- a 20-hour drive through the desert -- with the usual road-movie clichés, such as road blocks, car trouble, seedy motels, that sometimes feel perfunctory rather than psychologically illuminating, though there's a good sequence in which the two literally try to fight it out and the film's final scene is beautifully understated.

The brothers’ otherwise convincing love-hate relationship sheds some light on the film’s central theme of familial bonds and the obligations they might create, though the current structure of the screenplay, co-credited to Pablos and Gabriela Vidal, misses out on an opportunity to contrast the boys’ relationship with each other and their mother more clearly with the relations Silvia, offscreen for a good part of the film, has with her parents and offspring.

While neither son strays much from the characterization already implied in the first scenes, when they’re still kids, Azuela and Hollander are good enough actors to bring their parts to life, with especially the latter impressive in the way he conveys his character’s youthful tenacity, worries and warmth without necessarily using words. Prudencio, appropriately haggard and absent-looking, is equally solid.

Though color correction seems a bit haphazard, with some scenes bathed in saturated golden hues and others in flatter, cold milky whites, Jose de la Torre’s cinematography is generally sensual and appealing, with some unexpected setups, such as an overhead shot of a chest of drawers being opened, compensating for the TV-like tendency to prefer close-ups for big emotional scenes. Carlo Ayhllon’s functional score is occasionally supplemented by extracts from Mozart’s operas, most effectively when the boys blow off some steam in a couple of bumper cars at a fair, lending the scene a grandeur that amplifies their moment of temporary abandon and thus indirectly bringing to mind their mother's moment of pure joy at the start of the film.

Venue: Morelia Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Centro de Capacitation Cinematografica, Imcine, Foprocine

Cast: Maria Renee Prudencio, Americo Hollander, Rodrigo Azuela

Director: David Pablos

Screenwriters: Gabriela Vidal, David Pablos

Producers: Henner Hofmann, Karla Bukantz

Director of photography: Jose de la Torre

Production designer: Shantal Franceschi

Music: Carlo Ayhllon

Editor: Miguel Salgado

Sales: Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica

No rating, 88 minutes