Thursday, 20 October 2016


By Dimitri Keramitas

France’s fourth Viva Mexico film festival celebrated contemporary Mexican cinema with a series of screenings and panel discussions this month, highlighting topics such as climate change and the relationship between film and the visual arts.

A scene from Calle de la Amargura.
The festival presented a diverse programme, with a strong social interest, attracting French and Mexican academics as well as Mexican filmmakers and actors. The screenings at the Luminor theatre, in a central area of Paris, included both fiction features and documentaries.

One of the event’s most notable films was Calle de la Amargura, directed by Arturo Ripstein and written by his wife Paz Alicia Garciadiego (the couple also led the festival’s master class).

Ripstein has been one of the pillars of Mexican cinema for decades. It’s something of a family affair: his father was an important film producer, and now his son is also a filmmaker. Calle de la Amargura is set in a poverty-stricken neighborhood (the English title is “Bleak Street”), and depicts the struggles of a group of its more marginalized denizens.

Based on a true story, the film deals with the accidental – or negligent – homicide of two midget wrestlers, twin brothers Alejandro and Alberto. They got mixed up with a pair of prostitutes who tried to ply them with drugs, not realizing that the dose to knock out a normal adult would result in an overdose for a much smaller person.

Marginalized characters in Calle de la Amargura.
The film, shot entirely in black and white, spends much more time with the two prostitutes than with the wrestlers. Adela and Dora are both middle-aged and find it hard to make a living, especially when having to turn over a large part of their earnings to their exploitative madams.

As in French director Jean-Luc Godard's renowned movies about prostitution, the “oldest profession” here becomes a symbol of capitalist exploitation. Ripstein films the life of the street with unrelenting harshness, to the degree that we might think the movie is an exercise in miserabilisme—wallowing in poverty.

But like Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Ripstein’s model, the director adds something more to the depiction of poverty. Not the surrealism of Buñuel, but a sense of artifice – the street looks like a theatre set, though completely realistic, especially as the camera glides along it like an inquisitive drone. The actors also bring a theatrical touch to their roles. The result is a subtle unreality that suits the theme of destiny, the sense that we’re all players in a cosmic game.

A shot of the 'bleak' street in Calle de la Amargura.
Other motifs enrich what might be a rather dismal march to the doom of the two pairs. There’s a curious emphasis on clothing and masks. Dora is outraged when her husband prostitutes himself with young men, wearing her clothes. On the other hand, the husband doesn’t want her to touch his magician’s costume.

The midget wrestlers wear decorative masks, like many wrestlers in Mexico, but they never take them off. Adela’s mother, an elderly woman used as a begging prop, often puts a cloth over her face. When the prostitutes arrange a tryst with the wrestlers, they cake their faces with make-up. The surface artifice becomes an existential second skin, dissimulating a suffering soul, a desire for self-invention, or perhaps an inner nullity.

More uplifting, or at least more human, is another theme, that of relationships. Every major character, no matter how unprepossessing, is significantly linked to at least one other person. These relationships tend to be difficult, even parasitical, but they lend genuine spirit to the characters.

Director Arturo Ripstein.
Adela, who exploits her elderly mother, takes care of her needs and comforts her. Dora has a teenaged daughter she spoils even though her maternal love is unrequited. She also has a strange, desperate intimacy with her shiftless husband.

Likewise the two brother wrestlers are bound by blood and physical particularity, and both are inextricably tied to an overbearing mother who’s a religious fanatic. The most crucial relationship of all is between the prostitutes and the wrestlers, who seem to enjoy their rendezvous with each other, before it turns into an appointment with (to quote the 2016 Nobel literature laureate Bob Dylan) “a simple twist of fate.”

Beautifully filmed by Ripstein and wittily scripted by Garciadiego, Calle de la Amargura looks unflinchingly at harsh social reality, but also at a mystery somewhere beyond it.  (Distribution: Oscar Alonso Festivals)


A scene from Mr. Pig by Diego Luna.
The other films in the festival (which is now moving to French cities such as Avignon, Bordeaux and Lille) include: Los Bañistes by Max Zunino and Sofia Espinosa (Best Film award at the Guadelajara film festival); La Delgada Linea Amarea by Celso Garcia (winner of several prizes in Mexico, Latin America and Europe); Résurrection by Eugenio Pulgovsky (jury prize at the Internacional Ciné Medioambiental Festival); Tempestad by Tatiana Huezo, about two women struggling against oppression; Plaza de la Soledad by Maya Goded (official selection at the Sundance film festival); La Région Sauvage by Amat Escalante, a self-taught filmmaker who has won prizes at Cannes; Me Estas Matando Susana by Roberto Sneider; I Promise You Anarchy by Julio Hernandez Cordon; Mr. Pig by Diego Luna (Best Narrative Feature, Dallas International Film Festival); and Somos Lengua by Kyzza Terrazas (Winner of prizes at FICUNAM and the Festival de Cine Mexicano de Duarngo). There was even an animated film, Las Aventuras De Itzel Y Sonia by Mario Fernanda Rivero (winner of the Best Film prize at the Cinema Planeta Festival).

Dimitri Keramitas is a legal expert and prize-winning writer based in Paris.