Steering a finely gauged course between poetic mysticism and historical realism, Mexican helmer-scribe Odin Salazar Flores adopts a child’s-eye view in his 1940s-set debut, “Burros.” After his courageous father is shot on the orders of a rich landowner for trying to enforce legally enacted reform, 11-year-old Lautaro is sent to relatives miles away to protect him from the ongoing violence; sensitive but highly resilient, the exiled child fashions his own dreams and imaginings from the materials at hand. Kinder and gentler than most current Mexican arthouse fare, Flores’ picaresque period piece will resonate with more traditional auds.
In the house of his aunt Emma (Leticia Gutierrez), full of dark, heavy furniture and host to midnight seances where elderly spiritualists whisperingly communicate with the dead, Lautaro (Abimael Orozco Lemus) is treated more like an unpaid servant than like a member of the family. Leafing through heavy tomes in the schoolhouse he has to clean, Lautaro nourishes himself with images that return in moonlight nightmares, or in daylight hallucinations by the riverbank where he fetches water.
Desperate to return to his family, he runs away, taking refuge with a very different kind of relation — the plump, loving Dona Carmela (Azalia Cortiz), already sheltering two young girls whose parents were victims of the political violence always lurking somewhere offscreen. Despite the shots of little donkeys under the opening credits, the “burros” of the title is a term for orphans.
In contrast to Emma’s gloomy mansion, Dona Carmela’s house features bright, interconnected rooms open to the outdoors. And Lautaro’s work for Dona Carmela, who runs a sweet stand on the side, consists of rolling candy with the two girls and keeping them amused by playing simple games in the hacienda’s sun-splashed garden.
Flores slowly widens his young hero’s horizons. Sometimes Lautero accompanies the farmhands on their various expeditions into the hills. They ask him to be on the lookout for a missing cow or a livestock marauder, unaware that he has stayed true to the teachings of his father: Lautaro’s sympathies lie with the starving cow thief or the pitifully emaciated wolf, both of whom he pretends not to see.
Pic never fully explains the political situation fomenting in Mexico within its timeframe; instead, Lautero’s integrity, mirroring flashbacks of his young, idealistic father, posits an alternate (if not necessarily triumphant) strain in opposition to the brutal oppression of the powerless by the powerful.
Tech credits are accomplished. Alejandro Cantu’s sharp, high-contrast lensing snagged a cinematography award in the Mexican cinema section at Guadalajara, while Flores copped a directing nod.