A son, a daughter and their dying mother are caught between desire, death and yearnings for the future in the remarkably pungent "Burn the Bridges." Theater-trained helmer and co-writer Francisco Franco makes the leap into features with striking confidence.

A son, a daughter and their dying mother are caught between desire, death and yearnings for the future in the remarkably pungent “Burn the Bridges.” Theater-trained helmer and co-writer Francisco Franco makes the leap into features with striking confidence, coming up with one of the few superior dramas in recent Mexican filmmaking. Top prizes nabbed at Morelia fest set up the pic for a prestigious local profile, which could translate into fair B.O. on its April 4 release, while global fest interest should be fast and furious.

Unlike several recent family-based Mexican films which took risks with high-wire strategies (from the lassitude of “Turtle Family” to the hyper-strained absurdities of “Bad Habits”), “Burn the Bridges” passes every dramatic test it sets up, pulling off fine surprises when things could have gone terribly south.

Siblings Helena (Irene Azuela) and Sebastian (Angel Onesimo Nevarez) develop the hots for each other while caring for their dying, cancer-ridden mom, former pop singer Eugenia (Claudette Maille). Add in the family’s snooping maid Chaya (Aida Lopez); the awkward homoerotic impulses Sebastian feels for the new boy at school, Juan (Bernardo Benitez); and the familiar tropes of a sprawling bourgeois manse on the edge of decay and the oppressive atmosphere of Sebastian’s Catholic-run school, and the film would seem awash in cliches and narrative minefields.

Instead, Franco and screenwriter Maria Renee Prudencio find a groove early on that keeps the film hopping with the unexpected, hinging everything on the volatile emotions of a pair of teens on the precipice of major life changes. A fascinating tension results from how 19-year-old Helena, the eldest, must stay at home, while Sebastian, who’s still in school, is free to roam and possibly connect with a companion — even a potentially dangerous character like Juan. Helena stews in the old house (rendered as a perfect place for eavesdropping by Lizette Ponce’s ingenious production design) while he plays, and hidden jealousies between the pair explode in the pic’s second half, after mom dies and the fate of the house is unsure.

At this point, “Burn the Bridges” taps into a new energy source, ushering in a fresh set of problems involving rich kid Ismael (Ramon Valdes) — who also has repressed desires for Sebastian — and young Aurora (Jessica Segura) — who rents a room in the house.

Though it never pushes its tone toward overt black comedy, pic carries strong reverberations from the earliest and latest films of Marco Bellocchio — the wild nature of family units, the powerful position held by the youngest male and the urge for freedom in a heavy Catholic atmosphere, all captured with vibrant and brawny cinematic technique.

Franco elicits amazing perfs from his generally young cast, with Azuela and Nevarez vividly capturing teen dizziness, creative impulses and sexual indecisiveness. Benitez, Valdes and Segura keep the film operating on a giddy and highly engaging level.

Lenser Alejandro Giacoman’s subdued use of color is just one of the film’s subtle strokes. Locations in the lovely northern burg of Zacatecas are highly original and refreshing.

Burn the Bridges

Mexico

Production

A Gussi release of a Las Naves Producciones, Foprocine, Estudios Churubusco Azteca presentation. (International sales: Imcine, Mexico City.) Produced by Laura Imperiale, Maria Novaro, Francisco Franco. Directed by Francisco Franco. Screenplay, Franco, Maria Renee Prudencio.

Crew

Camera (color), Erika Licea; editor, Sebastian Garza; music, Alejandro Giacoman; songs, Joselo Rangel; production designer, Lizette Ponce; costume designer, Bertha Romero; sound (Dolby Digital), Pablo Tamez; sound designer, Matias Barberis; supervising sound editor, Nerio Barberis; paintings, Claudio Isaac; associate producers, Sebastian Sanchez Amunategui, Oscar Uriel; assistant director, Lucia Gaja; second unit camera, Marc Bellver; casting, Franco, Viridiana Olvera. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (Cine Latino), Jan. 11, 2008. (Also in Morelia, Cancun film festivals.) Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Irene Azuela, Angel Onesimo Nevarez, Claudette Maille, Bernardo Benitez, Ramon Valdez, Juan Carlos Barreto, Aida Lopez, Jessica Segura, Diana Bracho, Alberto Estrella, Ricardo Blume. (English, French dialogue)

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