The Searches (Las busquedas): Palm Springs Review

The Searches
An exceptionally composed and told story, in crisp black-and-white, set in Mexico City.

The second feature from Mexico-based director Jose Luis Valle ("Workers") is an austere but masterful fable shot in gorgeous black-and-white.

The directorial talent of Salvadorian-Mexican director Jose Luis Valle, whose fiction debut Workers racked up sales in quite a few territories, further confirms he's got an exceptional eye for composition and storytelling in The Searches (Las busquedas), a monochromatic, carefully distilled story that's as forceful a cinematic statement as its message is delicate.

Following the unexpected suicide of her husband, a young widow in Mexico City, Elvira (Arcelia Ramirez), hesitantly tries to befriend the man (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) who delivers the bottles for her water cooler, initially offering him some of her late other half's clothes. Unbeknownst to her, at least initially, he's also lost his wife, as well as his daughter, and he has vowed to find the man (Gabino Rodriguez) who stole his wallet that contained the only family photo he still had.

That's all there is in terms of plot for this lean, 77-minute feature that was shot "with five people over seven days and with $1,500," as the end titles reveal. But that's more than enough for Valle to demonstrate he’s a born visual storyteller who can explore themes such as the need for human warmth, revenge and forgiveness with barely any dialog and the help of a small handful of impressively naturalistic performances. Despite its somewhat odd-sounding English moniker, The Searches should further help establish Valle’s reputation as an important new voice in Mexican cinema.

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As in Workers, which is responsible for the existence of this film -- which was shot (but reportedly not edited) while Valle was waiting for the financing of his fiction debut to come together -- the narrative is arrived at sideways, with the camera initially following the last actions of the husband before he kills himself in the patio. We see the man go upstairs, come back down with a gun and then only hear (but, crucially, not see) him cocking the gun and firing a single shot.

The camera subsequently stays inside, focusing on various details of the decor, until Elvira comes home, oblivious to what has happened and talking out loud to her husband even though she doesn't see him, in the way many longtime couples do, until she discovers the body, also off-screen. The message is clear: the death of the husband is a mystery that cannot be solved and simply has to be accepted by Elvira as well as the audience.

Also as in Workers, Valle then introduces a seemingly unrelated storyline that follows two male friends who are having a frugal dinner while one suggests the other take up a job as a delivery man of bottled water until something better comes along. The stories finally connect in ways both expected and unexpected, and one of the chief pleasures of Valle's cinema is that it takes time for the audience to take in the beautifully and meaningfully composed images, here shot in rich and crisp black-and-white and often in long takes by the extremely talented Cesar Gutierrez Miranda, who also shot Workers and Valle's sole documentary feature, The Pope's Miracle.

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Because the story's been pared down to its bare essentials and Valle often prefers visuals to meaningful dialog, the film naturally invites viewers to think about the reasons behind the characters' actions. A long sequence shot of the water deliverer nervously waiting across the street before crossing and then making his presence known to Elvira speaks volumes about his apprehension and weariness on the one hand but his desire to see the kind woman again on the other.

Similarly, a shot in which Elvira quickly empties an entire bottle containing several gallons of water into the kitchen sink right after its been delivered explains her desire to move past what's happened to her husband with a decisiveness that betrays she's probably acting quickly because she knows she might otherwise regret her decision of having to call the delivery man again (it's also one of the few shots that gets a laugh).

Not since Julian Hernandez exploded onto the scene in 2003 with A Thousand Clouds of Peace has a Mexican director been so tuned into the potential of storytelling through visuals, in color or black-and-white. If Valle can make such an entrancing film with such minimal means, one has to wonder what he'll have in store when he’ll have the budget a man of his talent clearly deserves.


Venue: Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now)

Production company: Caverna Cine
Cast: Gustavo Sanchez Parra, Arcelia Ramirez, Gabino Rodriguez
Writer-Director: Jose Luis Valle
Producer: Jose Luis Valle
Director of photography: Cesar Gutierrez Miranda
Music: Armando Narvaez, Jose Miguel Enriquez
Editor: Ulises Vallejo
No rating, 77 minutes.