An elderly man’s final day alive in Mexico City is rendered with intensity and rigor by filmmaker Michel Lipkes in the aptly titled “Malaventura.” Lipkes’ debut feature vigorously flies the flag of the “slow cinema” movement, now especially strong among young Latin American and Asian directors. A distinct absurdist attitude leavens this existential journey, in which the old man’s routines and dreams create a destabilizing effect. Result should find a warm welcome on the quality fest circuit.
Recent Mexican films such as Carlos Reygadas’ “Battle in Heaven” and Nicolas Pereda’s “Perpetuum Mobile” have taken on the Mexico City megalopolis as both character and staging area, but it could be argued that Lipkes takes this notion one step further in “Malaventura.” In sequence after sequence, the old man (as he’s identified in credits, played with rough majesty by non-pro actor Isaac Lopez) is seen in relief against the city’s streets, plazas and public spaces. He’s an archetype of a man often seen, but more often ignored.
The opening nine-minute shot places the old man in his humble apartment, after an extremely slow fade-in as he awakens, does his morning chores and gets ready to go out, his movements counterpointed arrestingly by composer Galo Duran’s disturbing music, abetted by Alejandro de Icaza’s and Jose Miguel Enriquez’s uncompromising sound design. It’s probably no accident that the camera views the old man from a kind of “Ozu angle,” the low angle that was a signature of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, whose several films about the elderly and their fading away echo here.
As he’s seen walking down his neighborhood streets, the man is dwarfed by his environs, and sounds (such as a destitute man reciting the lyrics of the Mexican national anthem, or a police car) take on sinister qualities. Lipkes frames the spots on the old man’s rounds — a subway car, a park, a taco stand — as stages on which incidents, observations or nonverbal exchanges take place. The taco-stand action suggests “Malaventura” doesn’t take itself grimly seriously, as the stand owner (Reynaldo Gavino) is seen, and heard, chopping up every imaginable part of a cow, one of the film’s several details of the city’s unique and often hilarious textures.
It becomes eventually clear — though the impatient may give up at some point, even in a pic with a short 66-minute running time — that the film will unwind as the old man does, following him through his mundane, sometimes lovely, sometimes inexplicable actions. He does have a job, it turns out, selling balloons in a park, but even that is colored by the dangers of the city.
More disturbing are sojourns to a porn cinema that plays as if out of a creepy ’70s flashback, as well as moments when the old man appears to have lost his bearings altogether. A super-sleazy bar in which a man continually re-recites a single poem plays like the ultimate dead end for those with no future.
The finale is less surprising (nor intended to be) than it is a natural last step in a downward spiral, in which, tellingly, the presence of God is nowhere in sight.
Credits list the film’s widescreen process with the cheeky invented term “Chamagoscope,” Lipkes’ joke on some local critics who have labelled his and other young Mexican cineastes’ films as “Chamago cinema,” slang for “dirty cinema.” Digital video lensing by Gerardo Barroso artfully emphasizes graininess and desaturated colors, whether in blinding daylight or sepulchral night. Duran’s music skillfully worms its way into the subconscious.