“Written on the Body of the Night” marks a further artistic retreat for long-revered Mexican helmer Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, whose ’70s and ’80s works are comparatively daring experiments next to this creaky tear-jerker. Continuing his longtime practice, Hermosillo has collaborated with the author of the source material — this time, playwright Emilio Carballido — but an “opened-up” first act is uneasily attached to what is actually a blandly filmed and stagebound two-act play. Though considerably energized by a good cast, this tale of a young man’s sexual emergence and desire to find himself as a moviemaker while surrounded by three very different women never authentically taps into the hero’s sense of liberation. After tepid reception in Mexico and screenings at Montreal fest and American Cinematheque, pic will go on to select playdates in elite Latin American and Euro theatrical and ancillary niches.
Pic’s distance from the current wave of highly charged Mexican cinema is unfortunately underlined in the first moments, with a marquee at Mexico City’s Cineteca Nacional touting, among other titles, “Amores Perros.” The young helmer, Nicolas Argelia (Arcelia Ramirez), is unreeling his new work, “The Woman in Exile,” a piece of nostalgia pointedly dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky. The film-within-a-film device, though relatively brief, is miscalculated, since it reveals Argelia to be a conventional filmmaker whose work, as the remaining 110 minutes reveal, is little more than a replica of his own upbringing.
After the screening, Argelia goes back to the apartment where he was raised by his mother, Gaviota (Marta Aura), and grandmother Dolores (Ana Ofelia Murguia), and, in a rough transition, flashes back to the events that sent him packing to begin his life as a filmmaker.
Trying to rent out a spare room for the money, Gaviota, a short-tempered, divorced teacher, and the calmer, wiser Dolores take in a young woman who claims her name is Adele H. (Giovanna Zacarias). This instantly strikes a chord with the impressionable Nicolas, whose favorite helmer, Francois Truffaut, is honored with a photo over his bed, but it obviously signals to less gullible viewers that “Adele” isn’t the college student she claims to be. Her sudden behavioral swings are so extreme as to create the false impression that this version of Carballido’s comedy-drama is going to be about a family taken over by a mad woman.
Gaviota smells a rat, and soon enough her suspicions are confirmed, but events lurch from one situation to another in manipulative telenovela fashion. A passage during a power blackout is especially sappy, though it lights up Nicolas’ sexual desire, which Adele ultimately indulges. The trio of women fall conveniently into three stereotypical models — the hysteric, the overly protective mama and the friendly, all-seeing elder — and it’s the latter who helps Nicolas get away so he can study filmmaking. The final break from home, though, isn’t nearly as moving as an extended departure scene in a train station would suggest.
Working against a claustrophobic setting are sharply timed perfs led by the subdued, droll Murguia, though Zacarias overplays her hand at a few points. For no good reason, Hermosillo favors conventional camera placements and cutting over his signature long takes framed by a distant lens. Subtitling for talky family saga robs pic of much of its original Spanish flavor.