Monday, October 09, 2023

Spotlight on Mexico

A few stellar recent films highlight some of Mexico’s contemporary issues and humanize the plight of citizens much more than traditional North American newspapers do.

Gods of Mexico (2022, Helmut Dosantos)
La Civil (2021, Teodora Mihai)
Identifying Features (2020, Fernanda Valadez)
Prayers for the Stolen (2021, Tatiana Huezo)
Nudo Mixteco (2021, Ángeles Cruz)
Dos Estaciones (2022, Juan Pablo González)

The hard working life

Helmut Dosantos’s Gods of Mexico provides an immersive journey through the Mexican countryside and landscapes. The film details the daily hardworking rituals people go through in order to make money.

The film is packed with many powerful stunning images, many of which are portraits akin to still photographs with people posing for the camera against the background of their houses or their job site. These images give the experience of walking through an art gallery but one where the pictures are alive and looking back at the viewer.

There is hardly any dialogue in majority of the film and sometimes there is pure silence. In other cases, the sounds of the activities or jobs fill the frame. There is an explosion or two, as some still jobs require things to be blown up. 

The final segment filmed in a mine features some very creative camera angles. The underground shots are shrouded in darkness as the camera follows the miners on their daily chores. Yet, the overhead shots of the mines from the sky have an eerie mythical horror feeling. Those shots could easily be in a horror film where sinister evil lies underneath the ground. Yet, given the working conditions in the mines and how miners put their lives and health at risk is perhaps horror itself.

Disappearances and Kidnappings

La Civil, Identifying Features and Prayers for the Stolen are linked by disappearance of children and all feature mothers who are determined to either find their kids or keep them safe. In all 3 films, gangs are involved in the disappearances although in La Civil and Prayers for the Stolen, drug cartels are involved as the films highlights the impact of gang operations on ordinary citizens. Identifying Features features different gangs whose operations look to profit from the thousands of cross-border migrations.

In La Civil, Cielo (played remarkably by Arcelia Ramírez) goes to great lengths to find her daughter who is kidnapped by local gangs for ransom. The film depicts the operations and logistics of how gangs kidnap locals for quick cash. In the film's case, the gangs kidnap from middle class families and poorer households that are already struggling to make ends meet. Corruption is everywhere with local police in on the take. Military are brought in to help yet they don’t understand the workings of towns they are parachuted into and to make matters worse, the military aren't trusted by the locals. The military impose curfews and drive around brandishing their weapons. The gangs are also well armed themselves with many employing young men and women, at times indistinguishable in age from their kidnapped victims.

La Civil is directed by Romanian director Teodora Mihai whose touching 2014 documentary Waiting in August is a lovely portrayal of children left to fend for themselves while their parents go abroad to work. In La Civil, she brings that documentary eye to proceedings and shows a mother who is left on her own. Cielo encounters other mothers or parents whose children are also taken away and tries to enlist their help for information.

In Prayers for the Stolen, Rita (Mayra Batalla) is constantly vigilant that her daughter Ana isn’t one of those whose name gets added to the missing people’s list, a list that tragically grows every time the cartel drive into their village. 

Rita even gets Ana’s hair cut short so that she looks like a boy and would be left alone. The film features many quiet powerful moments that highlight the locals daily struggle to survive. One of the many memorable images from the film is that of all the villagers standing on a hilltop at night time trying to contact their relatives. The hilltop is the only place where locals can get a cell signal. The night sky is lit up by the brightness of the numerous cell phones as each person is trying to contact a relative in a far off location either to ask for money or to verify their well being.

In Identifying Features, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) undertakes a journey to the US-Mexican border to find her missing son. The promise of a better life in USA led the son to the US but when he goes missing, Magdalena retraces his journey in the hopes of finding him or getting some answers. The film depicts the brutal dangers that migrants have to navigate in their quest to safely cross the border.

Urban-Rural Divide

Ángeles Cruz’s Nudo Mixteco uses the plight of three characters to highlight the divide between traditional vs contemporary values and ideologies. The three characters, María (Sonia Couoh), Esteban (Noé Hernández) and Toña (Myriam Bravo), return to their village located in Oaxaca for different reasons and their paths interconnect without each knowing of the other’s situation. The film’s muted colour palette and tone lends an air of authenticity to events while highlighting the gulf that exists in ways of thinking between a city and a rural town/village even though the two are separated by a few hours. This urban-rural divide can be found in all parts of the world including Mexico’s North American neighbours US and Canada.


Tequila is one of the more common associations of Mexico around the world. Yet, the drink and associated agave plant haven’t featured in a film like Juan Pablo González’s brilliant Dos Estaciones. This is easily one of the best films of 2022 and one of the best recent contemporary Mexican films. It is also one of those rare Mexican films devoid of crime and cartels. The film looks at the struggle of María Sánchez (Teresa Sánchez) to keep her Tequila factory afloat in the midst of a plague that threats the quality of the agave plant. In addition, she has to make hard decisions about the employment of her factory workers, some of whom she treats like family, and the future of her factory ownership while attempting to stay independent and not sell her factory to a larger corporate chain like others around her.

Dos Estaciones is beautifully filmed with a smart blend of documentary and artistic elements. There are many shots of María Sánchez walking around the factory that evoke the cinema of Dardenne brothers  Impressively, the film elevates tequila tasting and shows that it is a spirit that can be appreciated and sipped like wine and beer, something that isn’t that well known in a world where lower quality and cheaper versions of tequila are liberally poured in cocktails.