Tribeca Film Festival: Gueros, (2014)

Gueros immediately launches us into a world as visualized by Alonso Ruiz Palacios, which is to say, a very mobile universe. The opening scene is of an agitated mother and her infant child who is crying and cranky. She appears to be anxious to get herself and the freaked-out child out of the apartment. The camera work is so realistic that I found myself getting as anxious as the mother to get outside. Then there is a moment of calm. Cut to a definition of the word “gueros”: light-skinned, blond or embryonic. Cut to an overhead shot of a bowl containing three white orbs which could be eggs but turn out to be water balloons which are then picked up and thrown off the balcony by a teenage boy and which land on the baby carriage of the woman in the opening scene. Cut to the chase. Teenage boy running from authorities with camera shooting from boy’s-eye view as he ducks down alleys and jumps over fences. I am mentally panting. The upshot is the boy’s mother say’s she can no longer control him. He is truant from school and intractable. So she is sending Tomas to stay with his older brother, Sombra, a university student in Mexico City who suffers terrifying panic attacks. Why she thinks this is a good idea is a mystery. Tomas arrives to the apartment his brother shares with a roomate named Santo, which is pretty much of a mess. It probably has not been cleaned in months. There are beer bottles, dirty dishes and dirty laundry all over the place and they are pirating electricity from an apartment below. Sombra and Santos are just slacking off since all the university students are on strike and universities are closed. (The year is 1999 and students protested for about 9 months.) But Sombra and Santos are “on strike from the strike”.

When they are forced out of the apartment they take to the road by car and here is where the story takes a new direction. They decide to visit the strike and that is where they pick up Ana, one of the strike leaders and a real firebrand, who Sombra has a crush on. She joins the three boys on their rambles to nowhere in particular and hooks up with Sombra. Tomas provides a vestige of purpose when he suggests that they try to find Epigmenio Cruz, their father’s favorite singer and whose casette is the one thing that the boys have of their father. Legend has it that Cruz’s singing once brought Bob Dylan to tears and they have just read that he is dying somewhere in Mexico City. So they want to find him and pay their respects.

And so it goes as they cruise through various parts of Mexico City and have adventures and misadventures along the way. The film is divided into four parts called North, East, South and West which provides some vague structure for the loosely connected episodes. A group of thugs drop a brick from an overpass which breaks the windshield of their car and when they chase and catch one of them, they then include him in their journey. It feels like a parallel to the opening section with the water balloon. They do find Cruz in an anti-climactic scene in a bar where he is old, curmudgeonly, and nods off as they are trying to pay him homage. Then Ana leaves, once again drawn by the siren call of the striking students. And then it sort of ends not with a bang or a whimper. There are many loose ends. There is nothing neat. It is like life. It is messy and odd and it goes on.

The thing that it is, is an engaging and entertaining trip. There is a lot of quirky dialog like: “what continent is continental breakfast referring to?” The characters are appealing, funny and natural. No one seems to be acting. It has the loose structure of an indie film and is shot in beautiful black and white by cinematographer, Damian Garcia. Using lots of really striking camera angles, cropping and focus choices he keeps it feeling very immediate and visually interesting.

In the Q&A the director, was quite self-effacing, when asked about some of the choices in the film candidly answered that some of them just happened and he decided to keep them in. When he explained that while trying to figure out what music to use to depict the music of the mythical Epigmenio Cruz, he got so exhausted by choices that he decided not to use any. So when the boys put on the headphones to listen to the music, the film goes silent. It is a brilliant device. When asked about a scene where the traffic on a major thruway is intentionally stalled and how difficult was it to get permission to block off that much traffic in such a congested city he confessed that they did not get permission. They just did it by stopping their own vehicles in the traffic (one with a walkie talkie to alert them when the cops were approaching) and had cameras at the ready on the overpass and filmed the footage very very fast aware that the window was very very small. And so was the budget. The director was as charming as the film. I found it to be quirky, smart, provocative and thoroughly entertaining. For a debut directorial effort, it felt more assured than he was letting on and it bodes well for his future work.

Review by Belle McIntyre

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