'Navajazo': Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno
Jagged exercise in experimental ethnography is cobbled together without flair or insight

Mexican director Ricardo Silva's experimental portrait of Tijuana took top prize in the Swiss festival's "Cineasti del presente" competition

Its title may be a Spanish word meaning "knife wound", but Ricardo Silva's pseudo-apocalyptic, sophomorically provocative debut Navajazo is much too surface-skimming to draw blood, let alone cut deep. An episodic survey of marginal lives in and around the border-city of Tijuana, the Mexican production premiered in the nation's capital at the FICUNAM festival in March before five months later winning the Cineasti del Presenti competition at Locarno.

The Swiss prize will doubtless spark eager interest among festivals seeking edgy fare, though many viewers may conclude that Silva's hipsterish brand of ethnography crosses the line between exploitation and exploration.

Silva and his key collaborator Julia Pastrana — credited as editor and co-writer — focus almost exclusively on drifters, drug-addicts, drunks, criminals, small-time showbiz figures, oddballs, eccentrics and freaks. Divided into three long, portentously titled chapters, each announced by spindly doodles and passages of breathily quasi-poetic, eschatological voiceover, the picture cuts between a half-dozen unengaging protagonists to compile a tawdry, scatological kaleidoscope of hard-knock urbanism, marbled with touches of evil.

And while the closely guarded border with Mexico's wealthy northern neighbor is only intermittently glimpsed, the tantalizing proximity of the United States provides a constant background him of discontent and dreamy speculation. Sex and drugs are recurring themes — we observe a smooth-talking American filmmaker casting and shooting a porno movie involving actual couples — presented with an explicitness that gives a sense of the audience's nose being rubbed in the scuzzier aspects of Silva's chosen milieu.

But his own approach is too arbitrary and flaccid to be truly penetrating, his tonally wayward collage of moods and formats (including found-footage extracts from TV shows, 8mm home movies and low-budget action movies) that fatally combines the prurient with the precious.

Several dialogue sequences drag on interminably for minutes at a time, including one punishingly indulgent chit-chat that revolves around the tattooing of a smiley face on the tip of a man's penis. Silva, needless to say, can't resist giving "Mr Happy" his wince-inducing close-up, although by this late stage many may well have lost patience with Navajazo's hobble-footed demimonde flanerie.

He does occasionally stumble across engaging material along the way, most notably a veteran, synth-bashing street-performer in ghoulish makeup who revels in his morbid nickname, "El Muerto de Tijuana," is prone to doomy pronouncements about the end of the world, and amply deserves a whole documentary of his own.

Production company: Specola
Director: Ricardo Silva
Screenwriters: Ricardo Silva, Julia Pastrana
Producers: Ricardo Silva, Paulina Valencia 
Cinematographers: Adrian Durazo, Alejandro Montalvo
Editor: Julia Pastrana
Composer: Albert Pla

No Rating, 75 minutes