Dir: Rodrigo Pla.Mexico, 2008. 110 mins
Sweeping the main awards in the Mexican section of this year’s Guadalajara Festival, Rodrigo Pla’s second feature (shot before his award-winning debut La Zona but completed later) is a strangely compelling anti-religious parable.
The winner of best feature, screenplay, actor, actress, cinematography and the Mezcal award also took the audience prize at Guadalajara, suggesting it may even have a commercial future on top of a strong festival career - even if TheDesert Within’s forbidding, Biblical-scale subject matter means it isn’t quite destined for the multiplex.
With sales agents circling and invites to larger festivals assured, Pla’s feature is based on his own screenplay written with Laura Santullo and uses as a starting point the atrocities perpetrated during Mexico’s 1926 Cristero War when a fervently Catholic population rose up against the anti-clerical regime.
But TheDesert Within soon ditches any pretence of historical accuracy and moves on to an entirely metaphorical level, dealing with the idea that the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons. Pla, however, doesn’t see this as a punishment of the Lord, but the result of man’s own fear, poverty, traditions, ignorance and - of course - religious superstition.
Elias (Zaragoza) is a poor peasant who believes his children have been condemned to die as a punishment for his unintentionally causing the death of a priest. He takes his family to a remote, deserted place where he starts to build a church that he believes might help expiate his sin.
The family’s life there is related by Elias’ youngest son, Aureliano (played as a child by Memo Dorante and later by Diego Catano) in five chapters. Because of his frail health, Aureliano seems destined to become the first victim of the family curse and is kept locked in a hut to stop him from catching any diseases. There, he must work on the paintings and ornaments that will finally decorate the church that the rest of the family is working on.
Life as a vale of tears, lived in the shadow of guilt for an unspecified sin and the fear of imminent punishment, is not entirely a foreign concept to many religions. And as such, Pla’s film may annoy some, while delighting others; either way, it will certainly provoke discussion given that, due to its allegorical nature, it doesn’t exactly follow a logical plot. Eve n make-up isn’t concerned with accuracy, as Elias looks younger at the end of the film than the beginning, despite his beard.
Imaginatively shot and intensely directed by Pla, the picture is given yet another dimension through Juan Medina and Rita Basurto’s animation sequences, which add a surrealistic touch to the proceedings. Mario Zaragoza’s tormented Ellias, a kind of Saturn devouring his own children in a hopeless search for an unattainable pardon, offers an impressive, well-deserved award-winning performance, and the rest of the cast isn’t far behind.
International Cine Lumiere
University of Guadalajara
(52) 55 5448-5309
Director of photography
Serguei Saldivar Tanaka
Katia Xanat Espino
Luis Fernando Pena