Sunday, October 28, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Here and There

Awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes' Semaine de la Critique parallel selection, Antonio Méndez Esparza's Here and There (Aquí y allá, 2012) sketches a few short years in the life of a rural Mexican nuclear family, following the return of patriarch Pedro (Pedro De los Santos) after years spent working in a New York kitchen and supermarket. Méndez divides his narrative into four discrete parts, "The Return," "Here," "The Horizon" and "There," with each treating key junctures in the life of the under-class family following an unmarked temporal interval. The filmmaker's imposition of this epic, novelistic structure contributes to the film's larger project of constructing a humanistic universality, one that exceeds a simple social-realist schemata. Here and There's introduction of a second, younger couple likewise adds to this effect by de-centering the narrative and broadening its scope. Indeed, Méndez looks to portray the existential condition of his Guerrero villagers as their adult males are forced North of the Border to seek the financial betterment of their families - often to mixed results - time and again. That is, the Mexican-American-Spanish co-production, from the perspective of the U.S. spectator, depicts the existence of the wealthier nation's itinerant laborers and service workers both before they leave and after they return home to their geographically and emotionally estranged families.

Pedro's first-act return indeed engenders a spectrum of responses among his wife and two daughters, with the adolescent Lorena (Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleón Vázquez) slowest to accept her long-absent father. Here and There's epic temporality, however, allows for personal reconciliation, which in Pedro and Lorena's relationship comes in the form of a musical tutoring session. It is at this point worth noting that Pedro pursues his musical ambitions (with the hometown Copa Kings) upon returning to his mountain village - Pedro's music is heard both diegetically and non-diegetically, and shown in the form of rehearsal, a commissioned gig and even a private, lightly comedic show for his wife and daughters - while his younger, teenage counterpart practices his break dancing and the latter's love interest performs in a folk dancing group. Méndez's multi-generational protagonists, in other words, share an artistic avocation, which in part helps Here and There advance beyond social realist stereotypes and the polemical trap of a pitiable other.

While Here and There is in this sense lightly anti-social realist - Méndez's subject to be sure still very much conforms to expectations of this mode, with its intrinsic critique of the Mexican medical system especially conspicuous - it is much more assiduous in its avoidance of melodrama, which is to say Latin America's quintessential televisual mode of address. Méndez does this by opting for existential struggle over bathetic suffering - as exemplified by the conclusion to part two's emergency C-section - and even more, by withholding many of the narrative's more dramatic encounters. Here and There achieves this both through its elliptical structure, with key incidents happening after the cut and even between the film's four parts, as well as within Méndez's occluded long framings. Among the most telling applications of the filmmaker's strategy occurs with Pedro's initial return from New York, where his dramatic reunion with his wife is presented at an extreme remove from the static camera. In this opening scene, Méndez makes his anti-melodramatic, which is to say his counter-cinematic intentions known.

Méndez works consistently though not exclusively within a long-take idiom, with tighter, intimate compositions and even shot/reverse-shot passages interspersed with elegant plan séquences and long mobile framings. Throughout these disparate strategies, Here and There maintains an emphasis on off-camera space that elegantly duplicates the film's structuring thematic of the immediate and local here and the invisible, referential there. Indeed, in Méndez's departures from social realism and melodrama, Here and There discovers a richly contextual idiom for making Mexican art cinema, one it should be added that gently references European and Middle Eastern sources including the Antonioni of the film's emptied final sequence. Socially and economically conscious but neither pandering nor miserablist, deeply felt but gracefully lower key, Here and There is one of this year's major achievements in the annals of contemporary world art cinema, and without question will prove one of the very best films to screen at the 35th Starz Denver Film Festival.

This piece was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Here and There will screen at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Wednesday, November 7th at 1:45 and 6:45 PM, and Friday, November 9th at 4:15 PM. Here and There does not currently have an American distributor.

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