Ultra-realistic, unorthodox in its storytelling, effortlessly suspenseful and oft-times shocking, “News From Afar” marks the auspicious debut of a strong Mexican filmmaking talent in Ricardo Benet. Success of the film may be limited to arthouse and Latino audiences, but Benet himself will not be going away.
Like many a Latin American novel, or the several films of documentary maker Mercedes Moncado, “News From Afar” tells its story in a less linear style than North American auds are accustomed to, making a fractured narrative mosaic out of what would otherwise be a story out of Eugene O’Neill. It’s an Odyssey in which the journey starts in the middle of the movie, and destinations are uncertain, if they exist at all. The result is a drama that plays out a lot like life — and, as in life, when something shocking happens, it evokes a visceral response.
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And several shocking things do happen. On the flat, unremarkable Mexican interior, a group of laborers set up a community that doesn’t even have name — it’s known as No. 17, where the local rock is turned into gravel, which is turned into cinder blocks, which are used for local construction. You can taste the grit in Benet’s new world, and feel vicariously burdened by the various kinds of poverty — economic, spiritual, intellectual — suffered by his characters.
It’s Benet’s strategy to let details leak out slowly — the parentage of Martin (David Aaron Estrada), for instance, who has lived since boyhood at No. 17 and carries a load of guilt over the death of his baby brother, Juanito. Why? It may be a question that’s never answered, or perhaps Benet thinks answers aren’t necessary. Or maybe there are no answers.
Shifting back and forth between Juanito’s time and current day, Benet weaves a somewhat confusing pattern of flashbacks and flashforwards that’s somewhat confusing until the director’s rhythms are established, whereupon pic establishes its grip.
Benet spends a lot of time — a fluid quality in this film — establishing the frictions and resentments that plague Martin’s family, which include his mother’s loss of what would be her last child, and her husband’s only son. Eventually, Martin leaves for Mexico City, embarking on a journey of the type that in most other films would provide the basis for the entire tale. Benet’s m.o. is to integrate the mundane with the remarkable, which only makes the remarkable moments more stunning.
Estrada, a charismatic presence despite Martin’s being a gloomy sort, has one of those unforgettable faces. Lucia Munoz, on the other hand, has one of those unforgettable roles — the waitress who befriends Martin as he wanders homeless in Mexico City, she is a notably complex, self-destructive character, whose own psychological meltdown sends Martin into a spin. What she does, while short of horror-movie-level mayhem, is both horrible and sad, and demonstrates Benet’s facile ability to interrupt his barren landscapes with a glimpse into the abyss.