The gimmick of appearances

by Karina Paz Ernand

Ciudades Desiertas

How difficult when a film arouses mixed feelings Ciudades desiertas (España-Brasil-Canadá /2016), certainly does it.

The third feature film by the director Robert Sneider, is competing in the 31st edition of the International Film Festival in Guadalajara. Seduced by the adaptation of literary works to cinema (Dos crímenes, Arráncame la vida), he brings for this occasion, a film of acid humor starred by the acknowledged actor Gael García Bernal. Based on an eponymous novel by the Mexican writer José Agustín Ramírez Gómez, Ciudades desiertas presents the story of Eligio, a charismatic and mediocre actor who lives recklessly and whose personal and professional life are trickling like water through his fingers. Being inadvertently abandonded by his wife, compels him to start a trip -as wild as his own existence-, towards a small city of the middle of the United States where he hopes to find her.

This is the backdrop of a love story "Mexican-style", which according to Sneider was what he was most interested in telling. The strangeness of the context from the cultural and landscaped viewpoint, stirs a certain puzzlement in the romantic story that is being told, causing it to traverse on the border of the same abyss where the main character constantly looks into.

It's a shame that the unequal interpretation of the main characters, should debilitate the dramatic force and the humor with which the story is suffused. While García Bernal unfolds in a chameleonic way, giving us a character full of charisma and constructed from an idiosyncratic humor of the purest honesty, the Spanish actress Verónica Echegui doesn't do other than project capricious grimaces of a nuanced sensual tone, which not even transform the character into a stereotype. Fortunately, the amusing and coherent acting by Gael García Bernal captures all the attention and allows us to enjoy from one of those passionate love stories, from what doesn't admit logic of any kind; Gael transforms into the very own story.

Although the film amuses us to the point of paroxysm, a second reading takes us through very different paths.

Initially, it would seem that the movie rescues that vanguardist and counter-cultural spirit which characterized "the wave" generation in literature around the 70's, and of which José Agustín is one of its main exponents. The prevailing machismo in Eligio (a pretense metaphor of the social imaginary), would appear to end up ceding to the present necessary demand of the woman's emancipation, accepting Susana's professional growth and even tolerating situations as politically incorrect - from the patriarchal hegemony perspective-, as the recurrent and visually consumated female's infidelity.

But let us not be confused. The same construction of the characters belies the alleged discursive proposal. In the first place, Eligio may well be an insufferable insolent, but of such charm that we are inevitably driven to empathize with him and even to justify his execess in the name of love. And although it would seem as if the protagonist is obliged to shape his latin machismo, in order to keep the woman of his life, Eligio never fully understands. He limits himself to "tolerate" with all the conceptual reading that the term prompts and that places him in a certain superior status of tolerant before tolerated. For as much determination and independence that Susana pretends, she always ends up abandoning what she desires from the personal and professional point of view, in order to give in to the demands of that, which disguised as love, restricts her freedom as a human being. She allows herself to be involved in this atmosphere of aberrant love commitment (perhaps because that is how society dictates it), only to end up justifying from the dramaturge's perspective, the character's development.

The final scene could not be more explicit. Seemingly, Susana returns, not because anyone forces her to do so, but because she has achieved her professional dream and has understood that she loves her man. But even though the machismo pretends to cede and accept the return of the great love, the unfaithful has to inevitably suffer a punishment. The jocose spanks seem an adequate option to accentuate the humor. But the scene only agrees with the traditional visual stereotype of a certain sexual morbidity, where the "empowered" woman is diminished and hamstrung, and to top it all, she seems to enjoy the ritual regardless of the protests. Everything drives her to submission and she ends up accepting to pronounce the longed for "I love you", that far from romantic, simulates a new act of posession.

Once more, the wolf has stolen the sheep's skin, and lurks around the screen, imbuing stereotypes occult behind the humor. The "irreverence" distills a certain duplicitous whiff.