'Semana Santa': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A leisurely, quietly affecting debut.

Mexican director Alejandra Márquez Abella makes an assured debut with this keenly observed film about an eight-year-old boy on vacation with his mother and her new boyfriend.

There are plenty of films about relationships floundering while on vacation south of the border, though it’s unusual for the unlucky vacationers to be locals instead of naïve gringos. In director Alejandra Márquez Abella’s debut narrative feature Semana Santa, a young boy accompanies his mother and her new boyfriend to a beach resort where the absence of occupying activities throws the resentments of all three into relief, and each begins to beat a steady retreat inwards.

In the car en route to the beach, the boy, Pepe (Esteban Ávila), tells his mother, Dali (Anajosé Aldrete) that her handsome boyfriend Chavez (Tenoch Huerta, Get the Gringo) didn’t wash his hands in the bathroom at the last rest stop. It’s hard to think of a more stinging character-indictment.

Márquez Abella demonstrates a deft, economical, sense of storytelling: Pepe’s subsequent line about a motorcycle that looks like his dad’s is hardly necessary to convey that Chavez isn’t the boy’s father, and that there’s no love lost between the boy and this presumptuous surrogate daddy.

The director’s last feature, the documentary Mal de Tierra (2011), was another portrait of lives in transit (in that case those of flight attendants, long-haul truckers, itinerants in general) and of tentative connections defined by imminent dispersion. Semana Santa ostensibly feels more focused on one point of view: that of a boy dealing with the absence of his father and his resentment of a feckless substitute. But Márquez Abella changes tack two-thirds of the way through, following each character separately in a manner that feels organic as well as compassionate in its even-handedness.

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Up till then the character of Chavez, in particular, seems poised to descend into outright bastardry. Huerta has form in this department, right back to Cary Fukunaga’s breakout, Sin Nombre. Chavez tells Dali that her son is a little s**t who needs a good spanking, but Chavez is also rather boyish, playing right into Pepe’s less-than-subtle mind games. The boy taunts the interloper with the fact that his mother still wears his father’s t-shirt – just after he’s laid out said shirt next to his sleeping mother, so she’ll put it on when she wakes up.

Márquez Abella demonstrates an unhurried confidence in parcelling out backstory without underlining it. A brief conversation with Pepe’s grandmother explains what happened to the boy’s father, and the answer makes Chavez seem both more concrete a suitor and ever more dubious a ring-in. When he meets two girls (Lakshmi Picazo and Jimena Cuarónby the pool, he promptly takes off with them on a road trip to a nearby beach. Meanwhile Pepe discovers a wallet filled with hundred-dollar bills and goes on a spending spree at the candy store. The errant kids of the resort line up to receive gifts, bestowed by Pepe as though he’s administering Holy Communion.

With no idea where to find either her boyfriend or her son, Dali accepts a drink at the poolside bar from Rick (David Thornton), a seedy-looking American who may be less lecherous than he appears. Over the film’s last half hour these three separate strands are seamlessly woven together by editor Yibran Assaud, aided by the plangent electric guitar chords of Pedro ‘Zulu’ González, which give each the same sense of hurtling freedom: of shackles being thrown off and bonds ignored, if only temporarily.

The conflagration in which the night culminates is characteristic of the film: tamped-down and symbolic in a way that’s persuasively low-key. Lenser Santiago Sanchez captures it with the same heat-flecked detachment that characterizes the entire film. What begins as a study in grieving ends with a glimmer, in the aftermath of near-total rupture, of something unthinkable: the germ of a real family.

Production Companies: Pimienta Films, Lado B Films, Itaca Films, Terminal, Cinematográfica CR, TV UNAM

Cast: Esteban Ávila, Anajosé Aldrete, Tenoch Huerta, Lakshmi Picazo, Jimena Cuarón

Writer/Director: Alejandra Márquez Abella

Producers: Nicolás Celis, Sebastián Celis

Executive Producers: Alex García, Jim Stark, Joakim Ziegler, Andrés Clariond Rangel, Santiago Garcia Galván, Øyvind Stiauren

Director of Photography: Santiago Sanchez

Production Designer: Jorge Barba

Set Decorator: Aida Rodriguez

Costume Designer: Deborah Medina

Editor: Yibran Assaud, Miguel Musalem, Adrian Parisi

Sound Designer: Alejandro De Icaza

Composer: Zulu

Sales: Mundial

14A, 85 minutes