It’s hard to believe that this compelling drama is the first feature directed by Fernanda Valadez. It is a beautifully constructed film that pulls you in by various threads into a story of mothers and sons, broken by a cruel society.
Jesus (Juan Jesús Varela) and his friend head off from their home in Guanajuato, Mexico, to cross the border into the United States. When their mothers don’t hear from them, they set off in search and the apathy of authorities is quickly felt. Not apathy through a lack of compassion, perhaps, but because the story is so common. The body of his friend is found but the mother of Jesus, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), is not convinced that her son is dead. She sets off on a journey that connects her, sometimes briefly, with people who understand her pain. She also discovers the many layers of danger facing Mexicans as they near the border.
Our journey is Magdalena’s. We feels the miles walked on unpaved roads, the powerlessness of an ordinary person asking difficult questions and the insatiable need for an answer. This is the heart of the film; is it best to know of tragedy or to live in hope? Along the way, Magdalena meets Miguel (David Illescas), a boy much like her son who has been deported from the US and is seeking his home. In him, we see the other side of the decision to leave family, home and country.
As Magdalena travels further into the badlands, we see all traces of civilisation disappear as she confronts the reality of life without compassion. It is beautiful and the camera lingers on the sparseness of the landscape, the loneliness of her quest, but it is also full of menace. There are some exquisitely suspenseful scenes that could be benign in their ordinariness but are suffused with danger. Of particular power is the harrowing tale told by an old indigenous man. It is not translated and we have only the emotion in his voice and distorted, out-of-focus images to build a picture of what has happened.
The final scenes pack a punch, underlining what is so tragic about such a situation.
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