Dir: Kenya Marquez. Mexico. 2011. 100mins
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.
Production company: Puerco Rosa
International sales: Latinofusion, http://latinofusion.com.mx
Producers: Karla Uribe, Kenya Marquez
Executive producer: Hector Zubieta
Screenplay: Kenya Marquez, Alfonso Suarez Romero
Cinematography: Javier Maron
Production designer: Sofia Carrillo
Editors: Felipe Gomez, Juan Manuel Figueroa
Music: Mario Osuna, Alejandro Segovia
Main cast: Ana Ofelia Murguia, Damian Alcazar, Marisol Centeno, Martha Aura, Eduardo Espana, Jorge Zarate