Potosi: Abu Dhabi Festival Review

Another exposé of modern Mexico as an endless graveyard.  

Two couples and a goatherd are involved against their will in a raging climate of violence in the debut that won Best Mexican Film at the Guanajuato Film Festival.

Sometimes it seems that Mexican cinema is being swept away by the same irresistible wave of extreme violence it decries, which is destroying the very fabric of society. The violent Potosi, a first feature directed by Alfredo Castruita, earnestly shows the human cost of the shoot-outs and mass hysteria, where justice rests in the hands of anyone with a gun. Shot in San Luis Potosi, a state in northern central Mexico which until recently was less devastated than others by organized crime and executions, it shows how they’re now daily occurrences that condition people’s lives.

Dramatically, however, the film suffers from a relentlessly pessimistic tone that leaves the viewer dismayed but without a handhold. Though there is none of the emphasis on outright torture that makes a film like Amat Escalante’s Heli such a shocker, Potosi piles tragedy on tragedy in a way impossible to assimilate. It’s bookended by a quote from Chilean president Salvatore Allende and a sage old lady who ominously remarks that the country has turned into endless graveyard, bringing a civil war with every dawn. Most audiences will need a little more encouragement than this to brave these sad stories, which recently took home the prize of Best Mexican Film at the Guanajuato Film Festival.

Three parallel tales are interwoven until they come together in the last reel in a contrived, rather unilluminating way. In the first, a solitary old goatherd happens to witness, from high on a hill, the summary execution of three men in the desert. Who they are is never explained: it’s just a routine killing that goes on in the background. The old man turns away and goes on grazing his flock.

Elsewhere, a handsome young couple, Ponce (Aldo Verastegui) and his wife Veronica (Sonia Couoh), the parents of a 10-year-old girl, love each other deeply even though they struggle to earn a living. A sense of foreboding hangs over the handsome, honest Ponce as he sells his corn to a rancher and uneasily begs his wife to move somewhere – anywhere.  But as she gently points out, there’s no place to go.

In marked contrast to the joyful passion that unites Ponce and Veronica, a second couple is introduced having brutal sex in their bedroom. Estela (Arcelia Ramirez) works in an office and when she’s late getting home one night, her sullen, sadistic husband Javier (Gerardo Taracena, Apocalypto) thinks nothing of beating and raping her in front of their daughter.

Screenwriter-producer Jose Lomas-Hervert’s script uses shifting viewpoints on the amoral war going on between the federal police and gunmen who stage highway robbery, kidnappings and bloodbaths in which innocent bystanders are often killed in the crossfire. Everybody is armed or needs to be and the killings just go on and on. The film concludes with a gruesome newsreel-style collage of executed corpses and dead men dangling from overpasses.

Ramirez (who raged murderously in Arturo Ripstein’s Medea drama Such Is Life) is a nervous, wide-eyed Estela, a depressed victim who keeps the audience at arm’s length. Don Margarito Sanchez appears as an amoral but angst-ridden police sergeant who takes no prisoners.

Santiago Sanchez’s cinematography takes in the region’s infinite vistas and dramatic desert sky, as seen from the viewpoint of the godlike goatherd. Though the temporal structure created by editor Chuy Garcia is interestingly complex, the screenplay doesn’t really link the characters together in any meaningful way. In fact the nasty final twist, which comes as a surprise, seems completely random.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (New Horizons), Oct. 25, 2013.
Production company: Bisonte Rojo Films
Cast: Arcelia Ramirez, Aldo Verastegui, Sonia Couoh, Gerardo Taracena, Melissa Alvarado Ramos, Don Margarito Sanchez
Director: Alfredo Castruita
Screenwriter: Jose Lomas-Hervert
Producers: Jose Lomas-Hervert
Executive producer: Melissa Alvarado Ramos
Director of photography: Santiago Sanchez
Production designer: Marcos Demian Vargas
Editor: Chuy Garcia
Music: Yamil Rezc, Jose Manuel Aguilera
No rating, 120 minutes.