Monday, September 12, 2011

VLAFF 2011: Abel

Meet Abel (newcomer Christopher Ruíz Esparza). He’s nine years old, and when he just got out of an all-female mental institution. He is the subject of the Mexican film Abel, which recently screened at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival. For the last two years, he has not spoken a word to anyone. His family’s living condition can best be described as marginal poverty. The father, as we discover, took off for the United States but no one has heard from him since Abel last spoke. Abel’s mother Cecilia (Karina Gidi) works menial odd jobs just to survive. His older sister Selene (Geraldine Alejandra) is a spoiled teenage brat who thinks that just because she had her quinceañera, she is permitted to date men ten years her senior. The younger brother (Esparza’s real-life brother Gerardo) is inquisitive and perhaps the only undamaged member of the family.

Abel’s mother brings him home. He stays up all night watching television and draws on his hand a lot. Eventually, he speaks, and since he has been mute for so long, everyone wonders what compelled him to verbalize again without stopping him. What’s truly shocking is that Abel has assumed the vacant role of his father: he critiques his older sister’s report card and refers to her as his daughter. He provides constructive criticism on his younger brother – now “son” – and his homework, with the promise of a trip to a water park for good behaviour and test scores. He expects to eat like an adult and is soon wearing sweater vests and ties at the breakfast table while reading the newspaper. It’s dastardly comic and the role gathers more and more Oedipal undertones and overtones. The doctor who has been responsible for Abel’s health recommends not disrupting Abel’s peace of mind by reminding him that he is a child and not his own father. The family eventually comes to accept this new status quo, as order has been restored and they co-exist harmoniously. And then one day, a man appears in the kitchen, claiming to be Abel’s father …

To put it colloquially, this could have been really, really icky material. Or as the young’uns might say, “ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww, gross!!! Your brother’s your father? How f***ed-up is that?” Very much so, reader, very much so. But there is so much more to Abel than the “ick factor”, and the director has a lot to express in this confident film.

The film’s director is the esteemed and much-sought after actor Diego Luna, famed for his breakthrough performance in Y Tu Mama Tambien and also appeared in Milk, Rudo y Cursi and The Terminal. Abel is an accomplished absurdist black comedy where ordinary lives are thrown into disarray, but re-arrange themselves into a new and unexpectedly harmonious whole. Despite the rather absurd premise and escalating comic hi-jinks that compel raucous and often uncomfortable laughter, a dark undercurrent courses this film and also in Abel’s veins. Abel thematically owes a great debt to Louis Malle’s 1971 Oedipal film classic Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au Coeur).

The subject of mental illness is dealt with her in a comic manner to bring attention to the fact that the system, at least in Mexico, is not equipped to handle outstanding cases of childhood trauma. In Abel’s case, he was housed in an asylum that specializes in assisting traumatized women, and has been surrounded by adults for the last two years. He has learned social cues and behaviour from men and women, and has had little to no contact with peers his own age. At the risk of performing brute pop psychology in a film review (no!), Luna’s point is that the system has failed and continues to fail its children. There is a veiled threat hanging over the proceedings that Abel might once again be removed and this time brought to an asylum in Mexico City, indicating that the family unit cannot be preserved if the system cannot provide for its own. Keep in mind that the father is absent and there is no indication that the state is providing the adequate support this family needs to do more than just survive.

The acting is uniformly excellent, especially with Gidi in the critical role of the mother. Despite the surrealist bent to the story, what grounds it and keeps it a real, tangible problem and tethers it to reality is her ability to communicate Cecilia’s frustration at the terrible hand life has dealt her. Esparza is a genuine acting find as Abel, and decision to cast his real-life younger brother as his on-screen sibling grounds their cinematic filial connection.
Luna at Cannes with his cast

When asked at last year’s London Film Festival as to why he chose this subject, Luna indicated that he himself had similarities to Abel, since he grew up without a mother (she passed away when he was two) and has acted since the age of six. He indicated in the same interview that he himself became a father and wanted to explore who he felt he was as a child, and who he didn’t want to be to his own child in the future. More than anything else, he stated, was that although the film is about the child, the film is at heart an account of the mother’s unconditional love and her desperate need to keep her crumbling family unit together, at all costs.

Abel was presented at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival this year, and received raucous praise at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals last year. The film has not yet received a North American DVD release but is now available in a Region 2 British home video edition. If you have the opportunity to see this raucous dark comedy at a film festival near you, do yourself a favour and take your mother with you.