The suspicion that soap fans sometimes take their favorite skeins a bit too seriously is played out to baroque lengths in “It’s Better If Gabriela Doesn’t Die,” an intermittently amusing satire on Mexican obsessions and social quirks that overplays its hand. When a cop feels betrayed by the scribe of his cherished telenovela, his rage takes on a semi-comic gravity Paddy Chayefsky would have recognized. Tyro helmer Sergio Umansky and screenwriter Ricardo Hernandez Anzola struggle once they get past the terrific setup, and it’s a shaky bet that satire will translate into decent B.O. in Spanish-language markets.
Although the telenovela phenomenon is widespread and deep across Latin America and Anzola himself is Venezuelan, Mexico-based Umansky fashions pic as a pointed jab at his own country, particularly its role as a producer of mass pop culture and its police corruption. Pic’s topics and heavy reliance on ironic plot twists brings it in line with a spate of recent Mexican movies, from “Nicotina” to “Never on a Sunday.”
Intended irony here is that the twisty nature of telenovela storytelling bleeds into real life, though it could also be read as Umansky and Anzola (both TV vets) simply grafting telenovela conventions onto an upscale feature. Pulled over on a late night in Mexico City, driver Miguel (Mauricio Isaac) reveals to cop Bracho (Dagoberto Gama) that he writes for soap “Destiny of Love” — which Bracho is so passionate about, he lets Miguel off without a ticket when the scribe tells him some upcoming details about the show’s heroine, Gabriela.
Problems mount when actress Ana Victoria (Gabriela Roel), who plays Gabriela, quits the show, and the producers see no option but to kill off Gabriela. Horrified at the unexpected plot revelations, Bracho becomes unhinged and tries to force Miguel to ensure Gabriela stays on “Destiny of Love.” Or, put another way, if Gabriela dies, Miguel surely will.
The menace directed by the fuming, obsessive cop against the writer reps almost too good a premise, and the film becomes a study in how setups are only half the storytelling game. There’s hope for a while, as pic’s midsection maintains a steady tone of increasing threat; the sweat beads on Isaac’s forehead magnify along with the pressure, and Gama has fun with a man losing his grip.
What appears to be a deviously constructed scenario, though, collapses in a third act of inane and too convenient plot moves. So deflating are the developments that they reduce the entire pic to a stunt, an empty exercise in contempo cynicism.
Umansky doesn’t display much imagination behind the camera, but he gives his cast a solid platform for juicy performances. “Gabriela’s” supreme pleasure, though, lies in lenser Celiana Cardenas’ impressive skill in contrasting the glossy, overlit surfaces of the telenovela studio with the ominous nighttime streets surrounding it.