The Mute (El mudo): Huelva Review

A threadbare revenge plotline is given a refreshingly unusual makeover, built around an excruciatingly watchable central performance.

This offbeat take on judicial corruption from Peru’s Vega brothers follows their Cannes award winner “October” and stars Fernando Bacilio in a role which won him best actor at Locarno.

Corruption in Peru, and by extension corruption everywhere, comes under the microscope in the quirky The Mute, a quiet moral fable with mildly thrillerish overtones about a vengeful magistrate forced into realigning his worldview after losing his voice. Built around a consummately restrained central performance by Fernando Bacilio, it’s a study of moral and judicial failure that’s both intriguing in its worldview and strained in its willful oddities, but there’s enough that’s appealingly distinctive in Daniel and Diego Vega's directorial style to ensure that much of this lingers in the mind.

Though local through and through, its themes are tailor-made for a world in which political and legal corruption fill the papers every day: driven by its directors’ track record, The Mute deserves a voice on the festivals circuit.

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Constantino Zegarra (Bacilio) is a workaholic, letter-of-the-law magistrate in Lima with a reputation for sternness, as demonstrated by his offhand treatment of a woman (Lidia Rodríguez) whose husband Escalante (Mexican Jose Luis Gomez Perez) Zegarra has put behind bars. Married to the endlessly patient Otilia (Norka Ramirez), and father to a daughter over whose life he wants total control, he’s charmless through and through. Zegarra then receives news that he’s been demoted and has to return to the godforsaken pueblo where he started out. But in a wonderfully-crafted scene, shot from the rear, Zegarra takes a bullet through his vocal cords whilst driving his car, losing his voice and his authority at a stroke and condemning Bacilio to virtual silence for the rest of the movie.

Zegarra becomes paranoid and decides that Escalante is responsible for the shooting. Aided by smiling slimeball cop Valdes (Juan Luis Maldonado), who won’t lift a finger without prior cash payment, he sets about trying to prove Escalante’s guilt. It’s a journey that takes him through several absurd situations and which will end in unexpected tragedy.

Other scripts might make a David and Goliath yarn out of all this, but the script takes care to make the perpetually stone-faced Zegarra as unheroic as possible: indeed, he comes over as obsessive and buttoned-down to the point of unhealthiness. Bacilio ekes out all of this to perfection, but there’s also something comic and absurd about the figure as, for example, he impassively listens to Valdes calculate that there are probably about eight hundred people who hate him. Indeed, Bacilio’s face is right at the heart of the film and is often the only thing in frame when shocking news is revealed.

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Though never able to make Zegarra appealing -- indeed, quite the opposite -- Bacilio does make him endlessly intriguing, as slowly the hapless magistrate comes to realize that his attempts to remain incorruptible are doomed to failure in a legal system that’s corrupt through and through, and to which he’s innocently and mistakenly devoted his life. Even his own drunken  father (Ernesto Raez) hangs out with corrupt bigwig Sanchez (veteran Augusto Varillas), who’s endlessly, painfully condescending to Zegarra. Though unflinching in its targeting of institutional corruption, the film also seems to be asking for a little humanity from our legal system: after all, what we call corruption is, from another point of view, the human face of the law.

The script is terrific on the little surreal details that bring stories to life: Zegarra and Otilia have the strange little ritual of showering together every day and make for a convincing, if rather miserable, couple. But at times the quirkiness feels forced: there’s surely no real point in having him use a hand drill to make holes in paper, other to persuade the audience of something it knows already – that he’s a very strange man indeed.

Editing is sometimes oddly paced, with the camera often remaining too long on Bacilio’s face at the close of a scene, while the storytelling can lack fluidity – particularly over the last ten minutes, when things suddenly become dreamlike to the point of incoherence. Oscar Camacho and Eduardo Rodriguez Davila’s score is extreme minimalist, consisting mostly of bass and discordant guitar. The films is coproduced by high profile Mexican director Carlos Reygadas.

Production: Maretazo Cine, Urban Factory, NoDream Cinema
Cast: Fernando Bacilio, Juan Luis Maldonado, Norka Ramirez, Jose Luis Gomez, Augusto Varillas, Ernesto Raiz
Directors, screenwriters: Daniel Vega, Diego Vega
Producers: Daniel Vega, Diego Vega, Frederic Corvez, Clement Dubin, Carlos Reygadas
Director of photography: Fergan Chavez-Ferrer
Music: Oscar Camacho, Eduardo Rodriguez Davila
Production designer: Mario Frias
Editor: Gianfranco Annichini
Sound: Edgar Lostanau, John Figueroa, Edgar Lostanau
Wardrobe: Amelia Campos Huapaya
Sales: Urban Distribution International
No rating, 86 minutes