Mexico comes in for a comically dark grilling in “Never on a Sunday,” an energetic and nervy semi-farce about the dreadful fate of a dead uncle. Marking the first feature by director Daniel Gruener since his 1996 debut “Sobrenatural,” pic clearly shows Gruener shouldn’t have to wait so long between projects — all too often the norm, alas, in recent Mexican film production. Pic contains just the right blend of pointed political barbs, commercial hooks and stylish cynicism to make it a genuine hit locally and in upscale Latin American markets, and, if handled right, pic could target Spanish-language auds Stateside.
What’s especially notable about “Sunday” is that it can be seen as a writer-driven film, uncommon in a national cinema that remains dominated by directors. Antonio Armonia’s script cleverly sets a mechanism in place to expose the layers of corruption and the ethic of “getting by” that, the film explicitly and comically argues, is rampant in the country.
Uncle Julio dies on a Sunday, when mortuaries are closed and office clerks have to be bribed to function. Trouble seems imminent when Julio’s teen nephew Carlos (Humberto Busto) is told by his father Rodrigo (Fernando Becerril, who also plays Julio’s slowly rotting corpse) to take care of mortuary and cremation arrangements.
But, after having mortician Joaquin (Silverio Palacios) take care of the corpse, Carlos doesn’t stay to make sure the cremation actually happens.
Joaquin turns out to have a good business on the side, selling corpses to buyers who in turn sell them to university medical centers. To cover his trail, Joaquin kills and cremates a few stray dogs and fills Julio’s urn with canine ashes.
When Carlos’ med student pal Jorge (Jose Angel Bichir) recognizes Uncle Julioas he’s about to cut into him and Carlos confirms his ID , pic’s action moves into high, mordant gear.
While there are several moments where the film plays in “Weekend at Bernie’s” territory — where oh where can Carlos stuff the corpse until he tells dad the truth? — Armonia’s script is more interested in how the disgusting events play out as part of the routine of doing business in contemporary Mexico. It also smartly balances Carlos’ increasingly desperate attempts to cover his own tracks with Joaquin’s moral rot, especially when he’s swept up in a scam involving a crooked pol faking his own death.
Farcical romance tumbles into the picture when Joaquin’s goth-like daughter Ana (Maya Zapata) takes a liking to Carlos. Somewhat ripe melodramatic clashes between Ana and Joaquin actually have a satisfying payoff in the nutty conclusion.
Palacios’ teddy-bear exterior belies Joaquin’s monstrous core. Busto (“Amores perros”) captures the panic of a lad who finds himself in one impossible situation after another. Zapata’s Ana seems like a dark Siren, but she turns out to be more substantial.
Guillermo Granillo Gonzalez’ widescreen lensing shows a taste for the ghoulish and Mexico City grime, while Gabriel Gonzalez Melendez’ score is too slick by half. Editing, by Gabriel Rodriguez “Choco,” is aces.