By Charlie Harman
Tomás’s mother can’t handle him anymore. Dropping a water balloon from the top of a building onto a woman pushing her baby in a pram was the final delinquent act that made her send him to stay with his older brother, Federico, a.k.a. Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) in Mexico City.
Living by candle light in a rancid flat with his roommate and fellow layabout Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), the pair do very little whilst just over the view from their high rise window, the 1999 UNAM Strike is taking place at their University. Not at school and not out protesting, or in their words ‘striking against the strike’, the pair have clearly fallen victim to a dangerous idleness; which is represented by the close-up, claustrophobic camera work, intensified diegetic sound and Federico’s ‘Tiger’, an embodiment of his debilitating panic attacks.
Once there, young Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) urges Federico and Santos to visit their dying childhood idol, Epigmeneo Cruz (Alfonso Charpener), a rockstar who is rumoured to have once made Bob Dylan cry, in order to pay their final respects after reading in the paper that he had been admitted to Hospital with serious liver disease.
After the pair refuse to go, an upset Tomas runs off on his own into the city. Meanwhile, their downstairs neighbour returns to find the pair yet again stealing their electricity via a orange cable passed up to them by their young daughter. With Tomas lost in the city and the neighbour ready to beat them to a pulp, the pair make a run for it.
Their somewhat violent release into the world; crashing through the doors of their apartment building after stagnating in their filthy, dark apartment also signals a change in the films cinematography. The camera is hand held and wild, nervously darting between characters as a panic attack slowly engulfs Federico. They see Tomas on the side of the road, pick him up and so begins a road trip and coming of age story that meanders across Mexico and tackles issues as wide and encompassing as; politics, mental health, love, grief, anger, friendship and loyalty.
The first thing to say about Güeros is that it is undeniably filmic and beautiful. The black and white aesthetic, so chosen by the director as to enhance the stark contrasts of Mexico, is mesmerising. What begins as a clear homage to French New Wave starts to subvert the genre with clever camera techniques and elements of fantasy.
The sound design is also incredibly interesting; the music of Epigmeno Cruz, the driving purpose of this film, is never heard by us, the audience. When characters place the headphones over their ears to listen, we’re rendered deaf; the rest of the film’s sound disappeared, silence being our soundtrack.
In one particular scene Federico laughs at Tomas for still listening to that old tape; something that their absent father had given them when they were young. He takes the tape player and places the headphones over his ears. We study his face in complete silence as a clear rush of emotions and memories sweep over him. The touching nature of this scene is increased when his two compadres touch their cheeks up against his so as to catch a note through the headphones.
In general the pace of Güeros is a plod. The camerawork and visual aesthetic require it. You feel like you’re supposed to take the images in and think hard about what they may mean; which does bring with it a certain pretentiousness. Scenes depicting the gentile slush of milk being poured into a tea, or a camera slowly turning upside down as it follows the shadow of a protagonist. However, where the pace picks up and a particular favourite scene of mine is when we meet Ana in person, having previously only heard her voice echo out from the University’s Pirate Radio Station.
A leader of the University’s protest, we first see her commanding the microphone at a student rally, Frederico clearly in awe of her. In a tracking shot that places us as the 5th member of the group, she then guides us through the occupied university; introducing us to the classrooms that now act as the home of her classmates or ‘brothers’. We peek around doorframes, glance down to the stacks on onions on the floor and pick up our pace to catch up with the others. It’s this scene that manages to amalgamate the nostalgia of the real life event, the exciting youth culture, the clever camera work and the satisfaction of seeing the interesting, funny characters interact with one another.
Güeros is an interesting and skilful – there’s no denying. But at times it felt like a pitch from the director; showing off technique for technique’s sake without thinking about it’s place in the film. The entire film focuses less on storyline than it does on simply creating a feeling. It’s more of a series of moments than something that hangs nicely together… and maybe that was the point.
I will certainly be excited to watch Alonso Ruizpalacios work and career progress beyond this thought provoking debut feature.