'Tremors' ('Temblores'): Film Review | Berlinale 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
Juan Pablo Olyslager and Mauricio Armas Zebadua.
It could have been a contender...

Juan Pablo Olyslager stars in Guatemalan writer-director Jayro Bustamante's sophomore feature, which premiered in the Panorama section of the German festival.

A family man endures a nightmarish dilemma in Tremors (Temblores), the moody second feature from Guatemala's Jayro Bustamante which places strong visuals, performances and atmosphere at the service of a naggingly patchy screenplay. With its topical pray-the-gay-away theme, the downbeat picture, discreet in its presentation of sexual liaisons, will be a popular choice for LGBT+ festivals and other, less theme-specific events. But internationally it may struggle to emulate the success of Bustamante's rather more exotic, rural-set debut Ixcanul (2015).

That film, which likewise focused on a clash between "traditional" values of a milieu and the desires of individuals unable or unwilling to conform, premiered to warm receptions in the main competition at the Berlinale and took the Alfred Bauer Prize for innovation. Four years later, then, it's a surprise to find Bustamante's follow-up "relegated" to the German giant's less-prestigious Panorama sidebar — though it's still eligible for the festival's LGBT-oriented Teddy Award. The exclusion is especially regrettable as its presence would have boosted the geographical diversity of a Europe-heavy slate now entirely lacking in Latin American titles.

There will certainly be several contenders for the 2019 Golden Bear of inferior overall quality to this handsomely-mounted enterprise, which — like Ixcanul — benefits considerably from cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga's lush, rich widescreen lensing. His images favoring sombre, bluish hues that emphasize the oppressively dank dampness of Guatemala City and its environs.

Also back on board is the fine native-Guatemalan actress Maria Telon, who makes the most of her supporting role as a housemaid/nanny, while behind the scenes once again is veteran French sound-designer Julien Cloquet. The latter's contributions are unobtrusively vital to a film of complex soundscapes in eclectic urban and semi-urban locales, including two (literally) rock-the-house sequences where the slow-burning action is interrupted by the title's seismic upheavals.

No major earthquake actually takes place — we're a world away from the 1990 cult classic with which Tremors rather unfortunately shares its English-language title. But these fleeting geological disturbances are more than sufficient to underline the idea that the bonds, relationships and social formations depicted on screen may be rather less solid than their respectable surfaces appear.

And of course this applies to individuals too, most notably fortysomething protagonist Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager). Scion of a staid upper-class family, married to the beautiful, younger Isa (Diane Bathen), father of two young children, Pablo has a well-paid job in a financial consultancy. But as the film begins he has just dropped a bombshell by revealing his love for a man: Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua), a very laid-back denizen of Guatemala City's louche demi-monde. The impact of this news continues to reverberate through the ensuing 100-odd minutes, Pablo's actions taking some unpredictable courses as he's effectively forced to choose between his lover and access to his children.

The latter interactions are imperiled by accusations of pedophilia which, it is strongly implied, cost Pablo his job (he's somehow transgressed the company's strict "moral code.") The only employment he can find is at his family's church, an evangelical Christian establishment run by the grandfatherly pastor (Rui Frati) and his businesslike female colleague (Sabrina de la Hoz). Attitudes to homosexuality are somewhat old-school in Catholic-dominated Guatemala, especially in comparison to European countries — "we're not in Luxembourg," notes Francisco wryly, referencing one of the film's two co-producing nations (the other being France.)

But the degree of prejudice experienced by LGBT+ individuals in daily life is never satisfactorily established. More problematically in basic storytelling terms, the exact nature of the accusations against Pablo is never spelled out. Bustamante's screenplay is a philosophically and theologically nuanced affair, intermittently elliptical, concentrating on the bigger picture without bothering to sketch in the smaller details. This becomes something of an issue, given that these are often the pivots upon which the somewhat telenovela-like plot hinges.

The final quarter of Tremors, in which a desperate Pablo consents to the church's "conversion therapy" program, shifts its tone and increasingly depends on the ambiguities and complexities of Olyslager's intense, harrowed performance. Does Pablo really want to "cure" himself of his "sin," or is he motivated by purely practical concerns relating to his children? Crucially, Olyslager compels attention and sympathy throughout, coming into his own in these closing stages. It's a performance which might well have put him right into contention for the Berlinale's Best Actor award — if only...

Production companies: Tu Vas Voir. La Casa de Produccion
Cast: Juan Pablo Olyslager, Diane Bathen, Mauricio Armas Zebadua, María Telon, Sabrina de La Hoz
Director: Jayro Bustamante
Producers: Edgard Tenembaum, Pilar Peredo, Jayro Bustamante, Gerard Lacroix
Cinematographer: Luis Armando Arteaga
Production designer: Pilar Peredo
Costume designer: Sofia Lantan
Editors: Cesar Díaz, Santiago Otheguy
Casting directors: Alan Aquino, Luis Carlos Pineda
Venue: Berlinale (Panorama)
Sales: Film Factory, Barcelona
In Spanish, Kaqchikel
No Rating, 107 minutes