Star rating – 8/10
This is the directorial début from Diego Luna, who first made his name in ‘Y tu mama tambien’ with Gael Garcia Bernal, and has gone on to star in Hollywood hits such as ‘Milk’, and is set in his native Mexico. It is the story of a nine year old boy who has had a mental breakdown after his father left the family a couple of years before. The film opens with Abel being discharged from hospital, where he has spent many months without uttering a single word, to the loving care of his mother and family.
It features an extraordinary performance by 9 year old acting novice Christopher Ruíz-Esparza . Luna was keen to cast a kid who was not a trained actor, to get a more natural result, and he definitely struck gold with this talented boy, who plays a very demanding role with ease and sincerity. Co-incidentally, his 5 year on screen old brother Paul is played, also very naturally, by his real life brother Gerardo. The essence of the film is not so much the onset of schizophrenia in Abel, but the effect that his father’s absence has on the whole family, and the close mother and son bond that lies at the heart of the story. His mother, Cecilia, is powerfully and tenderly played by Karina Gidi, and it is her central performance that is the key to the children’s lives and future.
She is determined to care for her son at home, and does everything she can to protect him, even when he starts to take on the role of his absent father. His strange behaviour is at first very amusing, as his siblings play along with the game, but it is only funny in a tragic sort of way, with a level of unease created at finding humour in this very difficult situation. The family are living in a run down district in an abandoned neighbourhood, in a house that is literally falling apart. Cecilia is just about managing to bring up her family with no money from her errant husband, who left to find work in the US, but in reality has been living in Mexico with another woman and new baby. When he returns he is disturbed to find that his young son does not know him, and is acting as the father figure in his place.
I won’t give away the ending but it is essentially a message of hope. In the Q&A session that followed this special showing in the prelude to the excellent annual Viva! Spanish and Latin American film festival that the Cornerhouse puts on, Luna spoke passionately and intelligently about his film. He said it was an autobiographical piece in some of its themes, and is dedicated to Luna’s own mother who was killed in a car accident when he was two. He is also concerned about what he sees as the almost casual absence of fathers in many Mexican families, and the effect this has on their children. After becoming a father himself he felt the need to make a film about these themes.
And his film is powerful, honest, and very moving, if a little off the wall. Hopefully he will continue to contribute in such a thoughtful and serious way as a director, as well as an accomplished actor, in future. Please Cornerhouse, let’s have more of this sort of excellent film making, which also pulls in the crowds consistently, rather than the blockbusters which we can see at any old multiplex, that have featured far too much in the programmes of late.