Howard Feinstein

How much more can you delve into the undervalued terrain of black comedy than setting it around a morgue, plotting it around a lonely old woman’s search for her presumably dead only child and an abused young woman’s bloody revenge, offing one of the only likable characters, and revelling in nonstop miscommunication and misinterpretation? Not much, and Marquez, in her first feature at the age of 39, does it masterfully in this revisit to the nearly lost Mexican genre of mature dark humour with plenty of bite.

Moments of broader humour pack punch because they are scarce.

Marquez works from an imaginative, meticulously economical screenplay co-written by her and Romero that relates the same story successively from two characters’ points of view—dangerous turf to retread, but here it functions well. Much of the action is carefully anticipated with telling details.

By combining her considerable directorial talent, Maron’s excellent cinematography that captures the rich textures specific to Mexico in a fluid progression of right-on-the-mark camera set-ups, and Gomez and Figueroa’s sharp editing skills, she equals or even tops any of the earlier more renowned filmmakers who directed fine black comedies: Carlos Carrera, Arturo Ripstein, and, yes, even Luis Bunuel during his Mexican filmmaking years. A novice who is older than the better known young bucks tied to the very different aesthetic of minimalism, she could end up giving Inarritu, Cuaron, and even del Toro a run for their money.

The film should get relatively wide exposure, assuming it breaks out. In spite of the language barrier, Latinofusion should be able to position it properly for European and North American distributors. Festivals and niche markets in Spanish-speaking territories, are a given, but word should get around that few films in recent memory have been so well integrated, entertaining, and daringly funny.

Expiration Date (Fecha de Caducidad) won the both the audience prize and a special mention at the recent Morelia Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. Upcoming international festivals should be fighting over it. The fact that the filmmaker is a woman in a culture where almost all the “names” are male is a plus. It’s got cojones, eschewing a happy ending for an ironic, tragicomic one in line with its overall tone.

The film, which takes place in the huge city of Guadalajara, opens with Ramona (Murguia), the elderly meek slave to her wimpy ingrate of a son, Osvaldo (Espana), lovingly clipping his toenails, when she carelessly bloodies his foot. This seemingly small point, barely alluded to, will become critical to the story, and sets the stage for Marquez’s stream of set-ups, none of them gratuitous. When Osvaldo doesn’t come home after a three-day absence from her dark apartment with its multiple crosses hanging on the walls, and its nightly dinner presentation of Campbell’s tomato soup, she begins a frantic search of hospitals and Red Cross offices, finally resigned to checking out the morgue and its forensics department.

She has no luck—she will only look at the corpses’ feet, wrongly assuming that a bloodied toe is all she needs to see—but does forge very bonds with two employees: the empathetic receptionist Milagros (Aura), who decides to help her in her relentless quest, and the seemingly sleazy assistant Genaro (Alcazar), a jack-of-all-trades who turns out to know something about the fate of the missing Osvaldo who has by now been reduced to mimeographs of a bad sketch and a couple of cheap photo-booth headshots—all of which prove to be significant as the narrative tension mounts.

Simultaneously, a mysterious beautiful young woman, Mariana (Centeno), moves across the hall from Ramona’s apartment, in a building where speakeasy-type openings in the front door are telescopes to the world (and highly suitable for a film in which the act of looking and architectonic framing are equally important). From the couple of glimpses of her we have had of her, we know, her staring herself at a blood-splattered mirror and hearing in voiceover the abuse inflicted upon her by her lover in some other town, that she has rebuffed his beatings by killing him. She flees by bus to Guadalajara, but a large facial bruise is a constant reminder of their final feud.

Unlike Ramona’s abode, homey if depressing, Mariana’s is empty except for a cockroach-infested couch, which proves to be a red herring in the storyline and somewhat off the track. She is broke and knows no one in the city, but she lucks out finding a job in the perfumery across the street from the building. Accepting Milagro’s well-meaning but misguided advice, Ramona decides that Mariana is actually Osvaldo’s girlfriend whom he has sent on ahead to meet his mom. Under this delusion, Ramona invites her in, serves the starving girl some of the endless soup, and, with little discretion, prods her about Osvaldo—someone she doesn’t even know. The misunderstandings continue—they never talk about the same thing, and Ramona refers to her as her daughter-in-law—to the point where Mariana stops seeing the old woman altogether. Expiration Date is a satisfying, perhaps twisted isomorph of the conventional rom com.

Like the conversations, little is what it appears to be. Genaro, who combs junkyards for scrap to sell and wears tellingly loud print shirts, is actually a gifted forensics man who could not attend medical school. He gets involved with these women after meeting Mariana in the shop, where he is looking for makeup to make the face of a decapitated head look more presentable when it is given to a victim’s family. A decent guy who is cursed with bad luck, he finds the head next to a car abandoned next to his shack in the countryside. He considers safeguarding the damaged body part a mission decreed by God.

The recall of a kindly shoe-store owner provides Ramona with the evidence she needs: After buying larger shoes to ease the pain from his bleeding toe, Osvaldo left the shop and was immediately abducted by two men and thrown into a red car. She had not witnessed the bloody sock beneath. Ramona suspects that the perps are the smitten Genaro and the calculating Mariana chatting and driving off in his newly appropriated used red car.

The first half of the movie is from Ramona’s misguided point-of-view, based on her incorrect but unquestioned suppositions. Half-way through, the plot is rehashed more from Mariana’s perspective, with dialog and set-ups that are much close to reality. Mariana uses Genaro to obtain sulphuric acid so she can go back to her town and dispose of her lover’s corpse. From the photo and the poster he sees of Osvaldo, Genaro realises that the head belongs to pathetic Ramona’s son. His quandary is how to get it to his mother, who by then has identified the rest of her son’s torso and buried it?

Moments of broader humour pack punch because they are scarce: Workers gobble sandwiches in the forensics lab during an autopsy, a falsely confident Genaro struggles in vain to be a cool ladies’ man dancing in a nightclub. The few allusions to Mexico’s social and economic crises are unobtrusive: The near-penniless Mariana, whose boyfriend’s body has been discovered by the police, escapes in the back of an iffy semi to illicit travel to the States, where her lot will not improve; Genaro could not afford go to medical school for financial reasons; Ramona, half-paranoid, half-informed, considers everything and everyone outside “dangerous.”

Marquez works here with some of Mexico’s top actors. Veteran Murguia, whose Ramona morphs from a passive, sweet senior into an obsessed, vindictive crone, delivers an excellent performance that is both nuanced and credible. As always, Alcazar is in top form, but the role of an awkward screw-up fits him like a glove. Aura is the embodiment of warm female friendship, and Centeno, while exhibiting more beauty and body than acting chops, is adequate enough for the part.

This is a film of many silences, all earned, which, oddly enough, provides the bits of music on the soundtrack—Mexican salsa-pop songs and light but chilling piano chords—with some basic heft.

During the end credits, animation addresses some of the questions that the film itself doesn’t bother to answer, even showing Osvaldo’s decapitation. The blindingly red colour scheme brings everything back around to the beginning and the Campbell’s tomato soup Ramona proudly claims to be her own recipe. It’s a novel and rather gentle way to begin and conclude a film in which false presumptions and misleading personas are the guiding forces.

Noveno Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia

Carlos Bonfil

El Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia ha sido, de nueva cuenta, un buen barómetro de la condición actual del cine mexicano. En sus inicios tuvo como una de sus características principales promover el cortometraje nacional, tan ausente en nuestra cartelera y tan poco atractivo para muchos espectadores acostumbrados a las fórmulas de entretenimiento masivo. Los trabajos documentales enriquecieron de igual modo la propuesta del festival, pero con el crecimiento de propuestas como Ambulante y DOCSDF, hoy plataformas ideales para promover esa expresión artística, el largometraje mexicano de ficción cobró en Morelia una importancia mayor, algo hoy evidente en los trabajos de esta categoría en competencia.

Lo notable en el conjunto de películas de ficción seleccionadas es la recurrencia de tópicos como la soledad, la pérdida afectiva y el duelo, la confusión moral y el desarraigo. No hay lugar en esta selección para una mirada optimista. El desencanto preside la mayor parte de las narrativas, y en algunos casos, como en Malaventura, de Michel Lipkes; Las razones del corazón, de Arturo Ripstein; Fecha de caducidad, de Kenya Márquez, o Los últimos cristeros, de Matías Meyer, la experiencia del fracaso es un largo itinerario que pasa por el humor negro, la melancolía o la desesperanza.

Con una sugerente fotografía mortecina, Lipkes propone el deambular de un anciano por una ciudad a la vez entrañable y ajena. No hay concesión alguna a las fórmulas narrativas tradicionales, y sí una sequedad en el tono y una expresividad singular en el rostro de un hombre que atisba los límites del dolor y el desasosiego. La experiencia es incómoda por su hermetismo radical y su aparente falta de asideros dramáticos. Lipkes, ex programador del FICCO, ofrece, como cabía esperar, un personalísimo primer trabajo autoral. Otra propuesta de autor es la del veterano Arturo Ripstein, quien apoyado en la fotografía notable de Alejandro Cantú regresa, luego de cinco años de ausencia, a sus muy transitados terrenos de la abyección moral para adaptar y ubicar de modo peregrino lo esencial de la trama de Madame Bovary, de Flaubert, en una claustrofóbica casa del centro capitalino.

Los estupendos actores Arcelia Ramírez, Plutarco Haza y un alucinante Alejandro Suárez se sobreponen con profesionalismo al guión de Paz Alicia Garciadiego que, por enésima ocasión, oscila entre el infantilismo, el humor involuntario y la insistencia tremendista.

Por su lado, la directora Kenya Márquez recurre al humor negro en su opera prima, Fecha de caducidad, y aprovecha al máximo las figuras de Damián Alcázar y Ana Ofelia Murguía, dueños absolutos de una trama ágil y divertida que tiene su mayor tropiezo en un desenlace aventurado e inconsistente. Un ejemplo de sobriedad lo proporciona Los últimos cristeros, de Matías Meyer, exploración intimista de la experiencia de un puñado de hombres que rechazan la amnistía gubernamental para proseguir, con armas rudimentarias, un desesperanzado combate religioso. La fotografía de Gerardo Barroso Alcalá casi hace naufragar la empresa en el esteticismo, pero el sólido desempeño y la enorme expresividad de actores no profesionales, finalmente la conduce a muy buen puerto. El sueño de Lú, de Hari Sama; Nos vemos, papá, de Lucía Carreras, y Mi vida en minúsculas, de Huatey Viveros, son tres experiencias de duelo.

Mientras la primera soporta el innecesario lastre dramático de un mensaje de autoayuda, la segunda se pierde en el sicologismo fácil y las truculencias de un muy azaroso complejo de Electra. La película de Viveros sortea, en cambio, con acierto los escollos del delicado tema de la pérdida, combinando el relato intimista y una picaresca urbana en la experiencia de una joven española que busca a su padre en las innumerables calles llamadas Juárez de la ciudad de México.

El lenguaje de los machetes, de Kizza Terrazas Hernández, registra el impacto que tiene sobre una joven pareja de clase media, roqueros de corazón, reventados de tiempo completo, la represión política en Salvador Atenco. Los saldos de esta vivencia en el ánimo de los personajes son desastrosos, pues agudizan su propio desasosiego existencial y sus nociones nada tranquilizadoras de la vida en pareja, enfrentándolos a una exigencia de responsabilidad moral que asumen con enormes dificultades. Una película igualmente sintomática es Los paraísos artificiales, de Yulene Olaizola, con la droga y la nerviosa evasión a un mítico edén rural como componentes de un desarraigo juvenil que tiene como punto de partida y de llegada la desesperanza. Un caso aparte es la formidable cinta de Paula Markovitch, El premio, que con agudeza describe los terribles saldos de una dictadura militar en la sensibilidad de una niña. El festival de Morelia permite vislumbrar hoy, venturosamente, una suerte mejor para el cine de ficción mexicano.

Morelia: refugio de la sensación/Morelia: shelter from the sensation

Mark Coousins

La mayoría de las otras películas fueron estéticamente duras, pero nuestra tercera mención especial, Fecha de caducidad, rompió la tendencia, fue divertida, Una historia Almodóvariana de una anciana cuyo hijo es decapitado. Al igual que las mujeres de Almodóvar, los personajes de la directora Kenya Márquez son tan entrometidos que la intriga sobre la muerte de pronto supera el dolor o la moral. Márquez siempre parece saber dónde poner su cámara y hay una frescura y caracterización que hace que su película sea entretenida y cinematográfica.

 Most of the other films were also aesthetically steely, but our third special mention, Fecha de caducidad (Expiration Date), bucked the trend in that it was a funny, Almodóvarian tale of an old lady whose son is decapitated. Like Almodóvar’s women, director Kenya Marquez’s characters are such nosy Parkers that their intrigue about the death soon outstrips grief or morality. Marquez always seems to know where to put her camera and there’s a Coensy crispness and characterisation – lots of gormlessness here – which makes her film both entertaining and cinematic.

En el Cine/At the Movies

La película mexicana que vi al día siguiente, fecha de caducidad de Kenya Márquez, la reseño en está nota. El público se reía a carcajadas, pero sentí que su (irresistible) humor era debido más a una reacción problematica. Está protagonizada por el ya conocido actor mexicano Damián Alcázar, como un hombre de trabajo impar que está encantado de encontrar un viejo Datsun destartalado abandonado en el desierto, donde vive. Pero queda menos encantado al encontrar una cabeza decapitada al lado del coche,  gran parte de la película tiene que ver con su intento de deshacerse de ella. Hay dos historias más – la de una joven que ha matado a su novio abusivo y huye, y la de una madre cuyo agraciado hijo adulto desaparece – y el relato ocupa los tres puntos de vista diferentes, a su vez. Una de las bellezas de la película es que cada uno de los personajes se ve obligado a inventar una historia de lo que les está sucediendo, y cada conjunto de mentiras irremediablemente los sume en la ignorancia. La combinación en la película de las historias perfectamente falsas y el humor negro impecablemente bien ejecutado, dice mucho, me parece a mí, de cómo se cuenta lo incontable.

The Mexican movie I saw the day after, Kenya Márquez’s Expiration Date (Fecha de Caducidad; ‘Best Before Date’, or ‘Best Before’, would be a catchier and crueller translation) picks up this note, but is even darker. The audience was laughing out loud, but I felt its (irresistible) humour called for a more troubled reaction. It stars the well-known Mexican actor Damián Alcázar as an odd-job man who is delighted to find a beat-up old Datsun abandoned on the wasteland where he lives. He is less delighted to find a severed head beside the car, and much of the movie has to do with his trying to dispose of it. There are two other stories – that of a girl who has killed her abusive boyfriend and run away, and that of a mother whose graceless grown-up son has disappeared – and the narrative takes up the three different points of view in turn. One of the beauties of the film is that each of the characters is forced to invent a story for what is happening to them, and each set of lies fools someone else irremediably. The film’s combination of perfectly false stories and impeccably pitched grim jokes says a whole lot, it seems to me, about how one talks about the unspeakable.



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