Working once again from an inventive script by collaborator Paz Alicia Garciadiego, helmer sets this modern Greek tragedy in a poor Mexican neighborhood. Julia (Arcelia Ramirez) is not a sorceress but an “alternative doctor” in the painful throes of romantic abandonment. Her husband, failed boxer Nicolas (Luis Felipe Tovar), has dumped her for the younger Raquel (Francesca Guillen), daughter of sleazy La Marrana (Ernesto Yanez), boss of the neighborhood.
Adding to Julia’s despair is the fact that Nicolas wants to keep their two children and La Marrana has given her an eviction notice. The woman’s desire for vengeance is fueled by her man-hating godmother (Patricia Reyes Spindola), who believes every male should be killed or castrated.
Working with a small crew and the freedom allowed by video, Ripstein goes for broke and reinvents his style, while pursuing his usual themes of love gone bad and the woeful designs of destiny. Every scene is shot in one take with a handheld camera, the latter’s presence acknowledged constantly by the characters and even challenged when it intrudes on intimate moments.
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Ripstein also plays with the narrative structure and employs imaginative flashbacks and fantasy sequences as a reminder that we are watching a representation. Greek mythology buffs will get a kick out of the ways the film adapts classical motifs to an urban, Mexican context. The use of an old black-and-white TV set is particularly clever: Repeatedly, helmer focuses on what seems to be the worst TV programming in the world — an ongoing weather report, random shots of Mexico City and a trio of bolero singers (accompanied by a weird kid playing spastic maracas) — to create a forlorn modern version of a Greek chorus.
At one point, the musicians also appear in the flesh to underline the fanciful nature of the approach. (The Brechtian devices are extended to include a reflection of the director and his cameraman in a mirror.) Such distancing effects don’t diminish, however, the raw power of the climactic sequence. Julia’s final act is one of the most disturbing moments in this director’s oeuvre.
Acting by members of Ripstein’s stock company is accomplished, and Ramirez proves a more than worthy newcomer to the group. Saddled with bland romantic leads in recent years, here she gives a searing performance, conveying the insane rage of a woman scorned.
In his fourth collaboration with Ripstein, lenser Granillo keeps the camera moving in a daring but assured manner, making the most of the maneuverability that a small video camera can provide. Pic’s grungy aesthetics are enriched by the transfer from video to film, which adds texture to the gritty colors.