Review: ‘The Good Herbs’

Novaro eschews melodrama and instead weaves a gentle, though occasionally haphazard portrait.

Writer-director Maria Novaro shifts into a refreshingly laid-back mood for “The Good Herbs,” a family tragedy about a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and her grown daughter’s attempts to cope. Returning to helming after a decade-long break, Novaro eschews melodrama and instead weaves a gentle, though occasionally haphazard portrait of real domestic tensions and the lifestyles of hippified urban Mexicans. Themes and approach will translate into broad fest play and select commercial theatrical and vid exposure in Spanish-lingo territories.

One of Mexico’s standout women directors, Novaro (“Lola,” “Danzon”) has delivered a film that plays like the result of much private reflection, and feels as warm as a handmade quilt. Well received at its Guadalajara fest premiere (where it won an award), pic can also be viewed as a critique of the national taste for high melodrama, favoring a more subdued approach to universal human issues.

Working for the collectively run alternative station Radio Nopal, Dalia (Ursula Pruneda) scrapes by as a single mom raising toddler Cosmo (scene-stealer Cosmo Gonzalez Munoz). Her loving if eccentric mom, Lala (Ofelia Medina), is a respected herbalist whose life’s work is sensually visible in every scene set in her folksy, ramshackle home. Her bevy of plants, flowers, potions, drawings and lab items, much like an artist’s collection of canvasses, suggests a life rich in experience and dedication.

Even while Lala is making a lotion to soothe a sickly Cosmo, she comments to Dalia that she’s starting to forget things. It doesn’t leave much of an impression until some time has passed, and Lala’s memory loss becomes more extreme, coupled with signs of senility. Novaro and co-editor Sebastian Garza’s graceful transitions lovingly ponder Lala’s beloved rare plants, at one point shifting poignantly between botanical closeups and CAT-scan images.

“The Good Herbs” plays on thematic variations of memory and recovering the past, within a network of a loosely assembled short sequences that are hit and miss, including a barely there romance between Dalia and Gabino (busy thesp Gabino Rodriguez), a dude she meets in a cinema.

Separately, these pieces — involving elderly family friend Blanquita (Ana Ofelia Murguia, in a lovely, charming performance) and the slightly goofy Radio Nopal crew, like a group out of a Robert Altman ensembler — aren’t much. But, like frequent music interludes by guitarist Santiago Chavez and percussionist Judith de Leon (who provide a beautifully soft underscore exactly in vibe with the film), they collectively form a picture of lives fading away and lives maturing. Dalia’s final decisions, which some will find shocking, are viewed by Novaro without judgment.

Actors Pruneda and Medina skillfully indicate how the earth-mama, eco-feminist style has been passed down from one generation to another, while Medina is given the most theatrical moments as her Lala mentally and physically falls apart.

Easily Novaro’s most visually accomplished film, “The Good Herbs” should boost the international reps of brilliant cinematographer Gerardo Barroso and production designer Lorenza Manrique, who enliven every location, from the cramped radio station to the cloud-shrouded southern Mexican highlands. A repeated motif of animated chapter cards illustrating various herbs and their properties reps a corny gesture.

The Good Herbs

Mexico

Production

An Axolote Cine presentation. Produced by Julio Barcenas, Maria Novaro. Directed, written by Maria Novaro.

Crew

Camera (color), Gerardo Barroso; editors, Sebastian Garza, Novaro; music, Santiago Chavez, Judith de Leon; production designer, Lorenza Manrique; costume designer, Manrique; sound (Dolby Digital), Alejandro de Icaza; sound designer, De Icaza. Reviewed at Guadalajara Film Festival (competing), March 14, 2010. Running time: 118 MIN.

With

Ursula Pruneda, Ofelia Medina, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Cosmo Gonzalez Munoz, Miriam Balderas, Alberto Estrella, Luisa Pardo, Gabino Rodriguez, Rodrigo Bolin.
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