First-time director Jorge Cervera Jr. (a veteran thesp both in his native Mexico and Hollywood) and scenarist spouse Penelope Cervera self-financed “Julio and His Angel,” a labor of love that should pay off nicely in Spanish-speaking theatrical and ancillary terrain. It also pays off well for viewers, since expertly realized, if dark, story will engross juve and adult auds alike.
Shot and set in the Mexican state of Veracruz, the pic finds 8-year-old protagonist Julio (Eduardo Saul Martinez) at his mother’s deathbed; she promises she’s “going to find an angel to protect you.” Without a father or relatives in sight, Julio is promptly dumped into a local “orphanage” where he and even younger children are forced to toil away all day making corn tortillas. They get showers and decent food just once a month — when the institution is visited by government inspectors.
Convinced he must return home so his “angel” can find him, plucky Julio escapes this de facto prison. Enraged slave-labor mistress Sra. Zapata (Carmen del Valle) puts violent henchman Pablo (Guillermo Victor Carpinteiro) on the boy’s trail, fearing that he’ll alert authorities to her illegal operation.
Wandering around without money or food, Julio is taken in by a band of homeless kids who survive by stealing and pickpocketing at the market. But when he sees a figure emerge from behind a giant stained-glass window near a church, he is certain he’s found his angel. The man is indeed named Angel Lopez (helmer Cervera), but he’s no heavenly creature, nor does he want a whelp hanging around the forest cave he calls home.
Paternal instincts soon come out, however, and the duo become happy partners in scavenging goods at the local dump, when not helping young priest Father Cristobal (Cristobal Clark Cervera) build his dream project: a residence for orphaned children.
Meanwhile, the menacing Pablo, forever wearing his pitch-black sunglasses, continues to hunt Julio.
Cervera allows his tale its fable-like aspects (which bear considerable similarity to “Oliver Twist”) and spiritual overtones while never straying from basic realism. There could be a little more punch in the execution of action sequences, and tighter pacing overall, but the pic succeeds in making the story suspenseful, engaging and humorous. Younger children may be disturbed by the harsh conditions at the orphanage, or the all-too-credibly callous behavior of its keepers.
Juve actors are all Veracruz-area nonprofessionals who acquit themselves well , particularly lead thesp Martinez. Pro adults are likewise on the mark, with helmer Cervera an enjoyably crusty, flawed father figure. Lensing nicely captures region’s natural beauty. Other tech aspects are solid.