Thursday, May 30, 2013

Aquí y Allá (Here and There)

AQUÍ Y ALLÁ (Here and There)                    B+                  
Spain  USA  Mexico  (110 mi)  2012  d:  Antonio Méndez Esparsa      Official site

I just want to be humble with real people.     —Pedro De los Santos Juárez, from one of his songs               

This is a small but slowly affecting film, ultimately a tender Mexican family drama that has more than a few missing pieces due to the long absences of the men searching for work in the north, forced to cross the border into America in search of better opportunities, where the family experience is reduced to weekly phone calls and money orders sent in the mail. Told in a social realist style, what’s unique about this film is the perspective of those left behind, both young and old, where the camera never ventures over to the other side, but remains affixed on Mexican ground, where people are forced to endure a different form of hardship, not knowing what lies in store for any of them, on either side, as it remains a continually evolving mystery wondering whether any of these men will ever come back or if they’ll take up with American women and start new lives, where the uncertainty of it all creates an anxiously developing reality.  It’s hard to even define what constitutes success under these circumstances, as it all plays out under continually shifting circumstances.  The film suggests the worldwide financial uncertainty is playing havoc with people’s lives, where this migratory pattern to follow the flow of work opportunities that comes with a seasonal harvesting of crops, for instance, both in Europe and America, lends itself to a nomadic lifestyle of built-in cheap labor, where people will endure the unbearable heat and the unforgiving long hours just to have something in their pockets, as the alternative back home are families that could be thrown out into the streets and left destitute.  This is the new age responsibility, where leaving the family in search of work is the responsible thing to do, but with untold emotional consequences that largely go unspoken. 

Divided into four segments, The Return, Here, Horizon, and There, with the last one being the shortest, becoming an ambiguous tone poem that objectively looks back upon all that has come before, this fictional film documents the hard realities of scraping out a living in some of the poorer regions of the world, where despite Mexico’s close proximity to their wealthy geographical neighbor to the north, once outside the sprawling metropolis of the big cities, the isolated and more rural regions, like this small town in Guerrero, continue to languish in third world poverty.  While economic circumstances stain the lives like a plague, this is not the central focus of the film, which instead examines how distance effects ordinary relations, where Pedro is seen returning to his family after spending a few years abroad.  While his wife Teresa is overjoyed, she holds back her long built-up suspicions about who he's been with, while his two daughters barely recognize him, Lorena and Heidi, and are more concerned with their own age groups, thinking he may leave again, not really trusting him.  Pedro is a singer and guitarist with ambitions of starting a local band called the Copa Kings, having already cut a CD in New York, that generates awkward laughs of giggly affection from his daughters, where he has to restore a sense of trust and camaraderie with each of them, with the sullen and emotionally reticent Lorena giving him the hardest time, as she’s deeply bitter about his being gone.  The quietly developing family interplay between them is among the most heartwarming aspects of the film, as Pedro is a decent and responsible man, whose humble origins have stuck with him, as he’s a completely unpretentious man whose interior character is expressed in the songs he writes and sings, becoming part of the narrative stream of the film. 

But Pedro’s initial optimism is thwarted by the day to day realities, as the men he’d like to play in his band work from sunup to sundown in the fields all day, never having any time for rehearsals and playing on the road.  At one of the few performances we do see, playing guitar and electric piano, it’s a euphoric experience to be singing your own songs, but the debt he owes for renting the musical equipment has come due and it’s a hefty price.  At the same time, Teresa has a difficult pregnancy and seeks immediate help in the nearby town.  The hospital sequence is unlike anything most of us will ever encounter, a life-altering, cataclysmic event where lives are literally hanging by a thread, where he’s required to go searching through town to find the various medicines the hospital doesn’t have in stock, while at the same time he’s expected to provide the needed blood donors to counteract the heavy loss of blood, which only sends him spiraling even more into emotional turmoil and debt, playing out as the central moral dilemma facing families, where the economic reality is stronger than love, and where the circuitous path of his life is once more forced to seek opportunities elsewhere, as there’s nothing he can earn locally that can remotely come close to paying the bills. 

One of the constants in this film is seeing men at work, including Pedro, working in the fields, doing temporary construction work, usually until the money runs out, and then spending days on end looking for more work, even traveling to nearby towns, but the inevitable reality is he’ll have to look elsewhere, where the entire cycle starts all over again.  The director met Pedro after casting him for a student film at New York University, learning about the life he left behind only to struggle to make ends meet in New York, deciding to return to Mexico with Pedro and make a film about his life, using non-professionals except for the newborn baby which is his own.  The final sequence somberly reflects upon this border, almost as a postscript, beautifully shown with a quiet devastation, as on the surface it looks so peaceful and tranquil, belying the underlying dangers associated with its history, where the other side is seen as a promised land, yet so many men die making the attempt, where families are forced into even more dire circumstances.  This is a thoughtful and contemplative film that omits the devastating effects of the headline grabbing, narco drug trade wreaking havoc on the murder rate in Mexico, as seen in Miss Bala (2011), and instead exposes with a delicate simplicity the equally threatening and potentially ruinous effects of poverty.  

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