Teodora Mihai makes an explosive fiction debut with this thriller set in Mexico
Dir: Teodora Mihai. Belgium, Romania, Mexico. 2021. 134 mins
“I just want to find my daughter,” is the heartfelt plea which becomes a haunting mantra in La Civil. The first dramatic feature from Belgian/Romanian documentarian Teodora Mihai is a gripping thriller that balances tension with a nuanced portrait of the culture of violence that has come to define modern Mexico. A commanding, award-worthy central performance from Arcelia Ramirez is the ace in the hole of an involving tale that should win the support of global distributors.
The bitter irony of La Civil rests in the simple fact that everyone is someone’s daughter or someone’s son.
Co-writing with Habacuc Antonio de Rosario, Mihai has taken inspiration from the true story of Miriam Rodriguez and the suffering of countless families. La Civil is set in northern Mexico where Mihai efficiently establishes the ordinary, almost banal lives of Cielo (Ramirez) and her daughter Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta). The mother is seen baking a cake, tidying up a pile of washing and watching a soap opera on television as Laura prepares to head out for the night. The close-ups of Laura have a slightly soft-focus glow that brings out her peachy complexion and sparkling eyes. (Cinematographer Marius Panduru beautfully serves the story throughout, especially in the many nighttime scenes on dusty, menacing roads illuminated by a single pool of lights or homes under siege as bullets fly and the menace becomes real.)
Cielo is subsequently approached by El Puma, a smug, arrogant young man played by Daniel Garcia in a sneering performance that stokes the fires of audience resentment. If she wants to see her daughter alive again, she will provide a 150,000-peso ransom (around $7,000) and the keys to a black pick-up truck owned by her estranged husband Gustavo (Guerrero). Frozen in the headlights of this nightmare, Cielo sees no option but to comply. The truculent, cynical Gustavo is less sympathetic and takes some convincing that the situation is even real.
How people react offers telling revelations about the state of Mexico, where there is an assumption that contacting the police is pointless amid a weary acceptance that this is just the way Mexico has become.
When the initial payment does not secure the daughter’s release, Cielo turns detective, following leads, questioning individuals and clutching at hope. The viewer is entirely on her side not only because of what has happened but because we only ever know as much as she does. Mihai punctuates the film with telling visual moments. A wall in Cielo’s home featuring family portraits is contrasted with a wall festooned with posters seeking information on those missing or kidnapped. The driving force of the film is Cielo’s steely determination and the burning sense of injustice that empowers her.
Arcelia Ramirez brings Cielo vividly alive, capturing her anger, exasperation and a resolve that manifests itself in everything from her purposeful stride to the nerves she quietly controls during a raid on a cartel stronghold. Even her hair becomes a reflection of who she is; cut short as she moves from passivity to aggression. A pact with Lieutenant Lamarque (Jorge A. Jimenez) places her on the frontline of the war against the cartels. The more she pieces together her daughter’s fate, the more evidence she can provide to him.
La Civil paints a compelling picture of a society in which nobody can be trusted and everyone is complicit in a neverending cyle of violence, intimidation and revenge. It also steps beyond that to show that the “good” guys can be shockingly violent in their actions and that the bad guys have families too. The bitter irony of La Civil rests in the simple fact that everyone is someone’s daughter or someone’s son.
Production companies: Menuetto, One For The Road, Les Films Du Fleuve, Mobra Films, Teorema
International sales: Urban Distribution International firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Hans Everaert
Screenplay: Habacuc Antonio de Rosario, Teodora Mihai
Cinematography: Marius Panduru
Editing: Alain Dessauvage
Production design: Claudio Ramirez Castelli
Music: Jean-Stephane Garbe, Hugo Lippens
Main cast: Arcelia Ramirez, Alvaro Guerrero, Jorge A Jimenez, Daniel Garcia