Review: ‘Once Upon a Time Maria’

A Don Juan drowning in fantasies and too many women named Maria tries to come to terms with his love life in Jesus Magana Vazquez's loopy "Once Upon a Time Maria."

A Don Juan drowning in fantasies and too many women named Maria tries to come to terms with his love life in Jesus Magana Vazquez’s loopy “Once Upon a Time Maria.” Stubbornly slight but full of erotic steam and chronological switcheroos, Magana’s follow-up to his debut, “Survivor,” hints at a continuation of that pic’s randy saga without ever explicitly referencing it. This is a second-tier entry in the current stream of Mexican cinema that, given a rather mediocre year, is nevertheless all the rage right now on the fest circuit; pic is bound to benefit from the uptrend.

Flashing back in time from the horrific sight of his latest lover, named Maria (Ana Serradilla), shooting herself, aspiring film director Tonatiuh (Julio Bracho) tries to come to terms with his current state of affairs. A fine, flinty domestic sequence in which Tonatiuh introduces actress Maria to his judgmental mother — named, natch, Maria (vet star Diana Bracho) — speaks volumes about the Mexican class system and bourgeois snobbery.It’s telling how this clash — in which Tonatiuh’s mom acidly, if ignorantly, observes that there are no good Mexican movies — is so much more effective than several other set pieces depicting Tonatiuh’s complicated sex life (with at least four other Marias, one of whom is a hooker) and his absurd visits to a shrink.

Serradilla’s Maria is depicted as a gorgeous creature who strolls onto the beach like a Bond gal but is also prone to human frailty (snorting too much coke, to name one fault) and forever elusive to the selfish Tonatiuh, who honestly proclaims at one point that he wants to receive more love than he can give. The pair is obviously doomed, but Magana fails to make the leap from the pleasures of the eros, the human comedy and the time trickery to deeper considerations, such as the possibly impossible state of male-female relations.

Bracho and Serradilla are fine in their roles, but even more importantly, they’re striking specimens to watch roll around in the sack; perhaps no Mexican pic since “Y tu mama tambien” has reveled in the guiltless joy of sex as this one does, further buttressed by Hector Ruiz’s straight-ahead jazz score.

Pic is propped up by Edna H. Lee’s terrific editing. Original Spanish title’s pun on the word “eros” is lost in the English translation.

Once Upon a Time Maria

Mexico

Production

A Sobrevivientes Films, Grupo de Leon presentation. (International sales: Sobrevivientes Films, Mexico City.) Produced by Yadira Mata, Mauricio Zaragoza. Directed, written by Jesus Magana Vazquez.

Crew

Camera (color), Carlos Aguilera; editor, Edna H. Lee; music, Hector Ruiz; sound (Dolby Digital), Susana Garduno; sound designer, Aurora Ojeda. Reviewed at CineVegas Film Festival, June 9, 2007. (Also in Guadalajara Film Festival.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Julio Bracho, Ana Serradilla, Mahalat, Diana Bracho, Monica Dionne, Veronica Jaspeado.
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