'This Is Not Berlin' ('Esto no es Berlin'): Film Review

Alfredo Altamirano
Sex, drugs and guacamole.

Hari Sama's edgy portrait of the counterculture of 1980s Mexico City as seen through the eyes of a sensitive 17-year-old has been winning international festival plaudits in the lead-up to its U.S. release in August.

Coming-of-age movies are a peso a dozen, but Hari Sama makes something special out of This Is Not Berlin, wrapping his protagonist's story in an impeccably rendered portrait of mid-'80s underground culture in Mexico City that makes it about far more than just the boy. Smart, good-looking and buzzing with edginess, Sama's fourth feature has been made with a love and care that's palpable in every frame, allowing us to forgive its occasional, inevitable brushes with cliche.

A sensitive insider view of what it was like to be there, Berlin is both educational to those who weren't and a nostalgia-fest for those who were — irrespective of what city you happened to be in at the time. Reception has been overwhelmingly positive in festivals from Mexico, via Sundance and Tribeca, to Spain: Its U.S. release is slated for Aug. 23 through Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The film is set in 1986, when most of Mexico was obsessing over the country's hosting of the soccer World Cup. It opens with a slo-mo scene of schoolground violence, after which androgynous, floppy-haired 17-year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce De Leon) faints. Carlos is not the same as most of the kids around him and he knows it, but for the moment his rebelliousness is confined to running a library of the porn mags owned by the father of his buddy Gera (Jose Antonio Toledano).

Meanwhile, Gera's cooler-than-thou older sister Rita (Ximena Romo), understandably an object of desire for Carlos, is annoying her teachers by reading  Patti Smith poems aloud in class by day and screaming out protest songs in a punk band at night. The only member of the older generation that seems to have any time for Carlos is his appealingly ruffle-haired, gentle uncle, marijuana-smoking Esteban, played by Sama.

Via Carlos' skills with electronics, Rita's boyfriend Tito (Americo Hollander) manages to get Carlos and Gera into Azteca, an alternative club run by Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), one of several sexually ambiguous figures in an LGBTQ-friendly film that's about breaking down all existing barriers.

Azteca becomes the youth's true home, where a new, alternative world of drugs, rock 'n' roll and Dadaist countercultural protest in the form of performance art (but not much sex, at least yet) will open up to him. "This is my past, this is my present," Nico tells Carlos as he shows him the hardcore gay photos on the club's backroom walls. Slowly, Carlos starts to become aware of how to play his sexuality to his own advantage.

Carlos is told that "we're fun people who like to be with fun people and do fun things." But fun can be dangerous: Frenchman Philippe (Sidney Robote) chides all these arty young subversives for simply copying European cultural models, because people are dying from overdoses and AIDS. Be careful, he warns them: This is not Berlin. (Quite rightly, Philippe is shouted down.)

Given the superbly rendered air of dangerous energy that crackles through the whole thing, and given that Carlos turns up to school one day still wearing eye makeup, things seem — deceptively, as it turns out — to be leading toward tragedy for him. But the movie's particular strength is not in the way it handles Carlos' development; rather, it's in the nostalgia-fueled love and consequent precision with which it depicts the context in which his story unfolds.

There's always the feeling that Sama is drawing on personal memories, whether of the sometimes striking performance art pieces or the often awful but aggressively energetic songs that are so crucial to the film. The World Cup backdrop is used cannily, too, with soccer representing all the establishment, homophobic values that Carlos and his new artistic buddies so despise. (At the time, most of Mexico, of course, had no idea that any of this countercultural stuff was going on, and interestingly, the drugs being consumed were painkillers, because according to Sama, heroin was unavailable in Mexico in the 1980s.)

The performance art sequences, which can so easily come across as risible when filmed, are sensitively choreographed and shot here, and are therefore able to retain at least some of their original punch.

The musical credits are lengthy and varied, making this possibly the first and last Mexican film ever to feature the late '60s U.K. blues band Ten Years After, as well as Joy Division, Lightnin' Hopkins and many others. Indeed, music is the way everyone finds redemption, with Sama himself providing a couple of the songs played by Rita's band (whose music is performed live, enhancing the authenticity).

The film's publicity trumpets the fact that Carlos' depressive mother is played (in a somewhat underwritten role) by Marina de Tavira, Oscar-nominated for her role in Alfonso Cuaron's Roma. But This Is Not Berlin is strong enough not to need that kind of help.

Production company: Catatonia Cine
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Cast: Xabiani Ponce De Leon, Jose Antonio Toledano, Ximena Romo, Mauro Sanchez Navarro, Klaudia García, Americo Hollander, Hari Sama
Director: Hari Sama
Screenwriters: Rodrigo Ordonez, Hari Sama, Max Zunino
Producers: Ale Garcia, Antonio Urdapilleta, Veronica Valadez, Hari Sama
Director of photography: Alfredo Altamirano
Production designer: Diana Quiroz Ennis
Costume designer: Gabriela Fernandez
Music: Dali Lantzeta Max Oldham, Hari Sama
Editors: Rodrigo Rios, Ximena Cuevas, Hari Sama
Sales: Latido Films

112 minutes