Religious madness and protective love that turns to hatred combine for an intense mixture in Rodrigo Pla’s “The Desert Within.” Pic, which nearly swept awards at the Guadalajara fest, signals a notable improvement on Pla’s overcooked debut, “The Zone.” Tracing the logical downward spiral of a guilt-ridden father’s attempts to make amends with God, the pic will be too symbolic and metaphorical for general auds, but it’s a good book for arthouse distribs after what looks like a fine fest run.
The premise — that a parent, tempting fate out of the desire to get his newborn baptized, would conclude that God wants him to take his family deep into the desert to build a church — suggests a sister film to Bunuel’s “Simon of the Desert,” but Pla’s work never reaches such crazy heights. Script by Laura Santullo and Pla is a chamber drama that develops into strange landscape cinema, appearing to bridge influences from Mexican author Juan Rulfo to “Woman in the Dunes.”
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Well-paced prelude is set during the bloodiest period of the Mexican revolution (in 1928), when whole towns suspected of supporting rebels were wiped out by government troops. Even priests and their churches aren’t safe, as Elias (Mario Zaragoza) discovers when his baby Aureliano is about to be born. To not have a baptism is out of the question, yet to go to the priest for one is sure to attract the eye of the military. Even Elias’ mother (Dolores Heredia, in a fine, stern turn) questions his judgment for inviting such danger, and sure enough, troops descend on the town of San Isidro.
Forced to flee with his immediate family, Elias has a vision of God (fancifully imagined by animators Rita Basulto and Juan Medina), and is convinced his children will die prematurely for his sin of bringing death to the town. With his brood and sickly baby Aureliano tucked inside a glass case for protection (a vivid sight), Elias treks to the desert.
Central section set in 1934 establishes a bizarre yet thoroughly realized world, in which the family has begun building a church (designed for the pic by Antonio Pla). Aureliano is locked in a room, supposedly to protect him from the outside world; he desperately tries to grasp hold of anything outside his tiny window, but is forbidden from touching his siblings. The sophisticated narrative reveals the reason for this tactile prohibition only later.Elias manages to colonize his children’s minds, but the film’s central concern is his gradual loss of control as the kids mature. “The Desert Within” metaphorically traces how belief can become totalitarian, and also how it can be eroded by the development of independent intelligence. Eventually, this means that older Aureliano (an impressive Diego Catano, fresh off a very different turn in “Lake Tahoe”) will emerge outdoors, and the emotional payoff from this shift reps a high point.
Zaragoza’s remarkable perf goes from abject self-loathing and reverence to near-homicidal madness and paternal affection, in the kind of role that, in an earlier time and in a Yank context, George C. Scott would have reveled in. When Aureliano and favorite sister Micaela (Katia Xanat Espino) shockingly cross a moral line, Elias’ response underscores the film’s view that people allow affection and mystical belief to push their lives in all the wrong directions.
Classy production portrays life in the desert in suitably biblical terms, with lenser Serguei Saldivar Tanaka and composers Jacobo Lieberman and Leonardo Heiblum providing huge contributions. Pic runs a bit too long, with editing by Pla and Ana Garcia stretching things to convey an epic vibe.