Veteran director Arturo Ripstein has transferred Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s 1940s novel to a contemporary Mexican setting with “The Beginning and the End.” While switch does essentially no harm, this somber, somewhat emotionally distant effort lacks the operatic sweep its tragic family-epic material seems to cry for. Pic, which has been making the fest rounds for the past several months, will prove a tough sell outside Spanish-speaking territories.
At start, the middle-class Botero clan is left unexpectedly impoverished by the father’s abrupt demise. Matriarch Ignacia settles affairs with coldblooded speed, tossing out ne’er-do-well eldest son Guama to cut household expenses. (Still, the family is soon forced out, relocating in a basement flop.) He tumbles into substance-abusive lifestyle as bar bouncer and sometime pimp, later drifting toward an ill-fated liaison with drug dealers.
Aspiring law student Gabriel is Dona Ignacia’s favored offspring. Demanding that all-too-pliant remaining children Nicolas and Mireya sacrifice their futures to ensure his, she calls Gabriel “our high card, and we have to place all our bets on him.” Thus reduced to drudge work, Nicolas loses his own shot at further schooling; then Mama steps in to ruin romance with a sympathetic divorcee. Mireya fares even worse. Desperate for any diversion from sewing-shop slavery, her sexual exploitation at hands of a caddish neighborhood baker leads to the risky solace that streetwalking affords.
Slow-moving narrative builds toward a suitably shocking denouement, when the ruthlessly self-centered Gabriel — now facing possible disaster en route to bourgeois success — convinces one sibling to cover his tracks by committing suicide.
Story brings to mind such epics of familial collapse as “Rocco and His Brothers” (especially in the good/bad brother dynamic between callous Gabriel and saintly Nicolas), with Ignacia a fearsome Iphigenia-Medea figure of heedless matriarchal ambition.
But there’s little cinematic grandeur or profound depth of sympathy in Ripstein’s grim, tightly focused account, leaving intended mythic dimensions at a remove from what becomes a grotesque pileup of slum-life catastrophes. More impassioned treatment could have heightened several scenes to much greater impact, as when Ignacia disgustedly pours Guama’s stolen heroin stash down the sink — realizing seconds later that she’s probably sealed his doom. Yet pic draws scant suspense from such twists; the bleak atmosphere suggests these characters are lost from the start.
Performances are uniformly good, albeit reigned in by director’s insistence on low-key realism. Lensing’s preponderance of close-ups similarly adds to a mood that, however intendedly claustrophobic, ends up sapping the power of a potentially devastating sage. Tech work in other departments is pro.
While a respectably crafted downer, “The Beginning and the End’s” cold progress belies Ripstein’s avowed aim to explore “the wound of mankind” in an “operatic tone.” His glum restraint results in something closer to overblown conventional melodrama.