The plight of a migrant worker is the burden of a coldly documentary-style first feature by young Mexican filmmaker Antoinio Méndez Esparza. Espara blends vérité-style editing and casting methods with artistic ellipsis in telling what happens when his rather apathetic protagonist Pedro (Pedro de los Santos) returns home to his remote mountain village in the province of Guerrero after years of working at odd jobs in the States. The storytelling is too free to appeal to a conventional audience; this is neorealism drained of its former energy an deadened by a sense of hopelessness much more 21st century than post-WWII.
“Allá” (“there”) in the title refers to the US. Why Pedro comes back home from there isn’t specified, presumably missing his family and wanting to be back home. His 30-year-old wife Teresa (Teresa Ramirez Aguirre) seems as apathetic as he is, and suspecting he’d have had girlfriends in the States, is withholding at first. His two schoolgirl daughters Heidi (Heidi Laura Solano Espinoza) and Lorena (Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleon Vazquez) are giggly and distant. In one of the most telling scenes, Pedro takes Heidi and Lorena to a lake he’s long dreamed of visiting with them. But the visit, like much else, is flat. His efforts to start a band — he’s a singer and guitarist — are also lackluster. Performing is obviously the most fun Pedro has in his life, but his “Copa Kings” group gets him deep in debt for equipment and work draws members away.
That’s the introductory section. The second one,”Aquí (“Here”), is a grim sequence in which Teresa has a medical crisis during pregnancy, and the baby girl, their third daughter, almost dies after a caesarian birth while Teresa, weakened from loss of blood, is consequently forced to lie for days in the hospital without seeing her newborn. The hospital stay — for which he must supply medicines and blood donors — gets Pedro further in debt. The result: day labor.
In a third chapter, “Horizonte” (“Horizon”), the film follows Pedro’s continuing tough life in Mexico and also visits Nestor (Nestor Tepetate Medina), a youth who wants to migrate to El Norte and practices break dancing — his life perhaps destined to parallel Pedro’s. Pedro is seen applying for work at multiple construction sites, work options apparently running dry. Part three is both depressing and desultory, studiously avoiding definite outcomes.
The conclusion is nonetheless obvious. In the final section, “Allá” (“there”) — Pedro is forced to return to the US, where he can at least find work even if it doesn’t pay very well. The film doesn’t show Pedro in the US; when he leaves, the point of view stays in Guerrero province. Esparza cheats a bit in this rushed last chapter, unless it’s meant as an epilogue. Esparza stages a perfunctory conversation between Heidi and Lorena about whether, or how much, they miss their now again absent father. Then the film shows a sound-only tape from a scene of Pedro performing songs at home with his family, while showing footage of the town Pedro himself no longer in sight.
The documentary style makes it hard to tell how much the family members are meant to be apathetic or how much the non-actor cast members, lacking forceful direction, are merely to shy and inexperienced to project emotion. One may correspondingly ask at times if the omission of narrative links is sophistication or directorial clumsiness. Dialogue is often crudely expository. Characters say exactly what they are meant to be feeling, or what we’re supposed to learn. With his ethnographically exact settings and people, Esparza would be presenting a shatteringly strong picture of the fragmentation of families and banishing of hopes for the Mexican migrant poor. But the prevailing listlessness makes it hard for a viewer to respond. Esparza has not drawn satisfying performances from his indigenous cast, whose dialogue often seems the mere mouthing of a scene outline. The effect is often quite unconvincing. Esparza’s methods show a debt to Carlos Reygadas, but he lacks Reygadas’ bold vision and skill with non-actors.
Aquí y allá nonetheless did well at Cannes, winning the top prize of the 2012 Critics’ Week series, which will guarantee further festival exposure and help the director pursue further projects. Those who admire the film see it as beautifully understated, its lack of resolution helping to highlight Es[arza’s themes. Barbu Balasoiu’s camera work has drawn praise for nice color and light, though its neutrality underscores the flatness of most scenes.
Screened as part of the New York Film Festival 2012, at Lincoln Center.
Director: Antonio Mendez Esparza
Stars: Pedro De los Santos, Teresa Ramirez Aguirre, Lorena Vazquez, Heidi Espinoza
Running Time: 110min
Language: Spanish/Nahuatl w/ English subtitles