A brashly lyrical corrective to American hubris, “40 Days” boldly crosses the border between the standard portrayal of U.S.-Mexico relations and something bracingly alternative, and honest: Not every Mexican is infatuated with America; not every Mexican is blind to its faults. But they may, just like Americans, be blind to those of their own country. Beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted, “40 Days,” which is already available on DVD, marks an auspicious fiction-feature debut for helmer Juan Carlos Martin.
Martin’s previous work — the pretentious panegyric “Gabriel Orozco,” about his compatriot artist — likely would not have prepared the viewer for either the modernist sophistication of “40 Days” or its Euro-skeptical take on America.
Redolent of certain films by Wim Wenders or Michelangelo Antonioni, or even “Easy Rider” (which is referenced a couple of times), “40 Days” takes a sort of mixed-media approach to Pablo Soler Frost’s screenplay, using a melange of visual techniques and textures to mirror the often tormented souls of its three principal characters: Andres (Hector Arredondo), licking his wounds over being abandoned by Maria (Elena de Haro); actress Ecuador (Luisa Saenz), released from the hospital to discover she’s lost the role she was hoping for; and David, aka El Pato (Andres Almeida), a gay uncomfortable being a man.
The three are of an ilk — educated, alienated and upper-middle-class — that’s certainly familiar from American screens, but not when the characters happen to be Mexican. Whether it was Martin’s intention to tweak blinkered U.S. assumptions (and it may be a symptom of American narcissism to even think he might have), he does just that, with characters who are proudly Mexican but otherwise universal.
Despite Pato’s unpleasant history with Ecuador, the three decide, spontaneously, to take Pato’s Mercedes and drive it through the States. As a desperate act, it’s akin to an adolescent boy moving from his bedroom into the attic. But the America they encounter will meet some of their scariest expectations, as the three get an education not as much about a country as about themselves.
“40 Days” is a period piece, of sorts: George W. Bush is president, Katrina is still fresh; the dark psychology of Martin’s portrait makes his film feel particularly time-specific. Sometimes, that time becomes the ’60s: A “Paris, Texas”/”Kings of the Road”/”Zabriskie Point”-style flavor of pandemic estrangement informs “40 Days,” although some aspects have been refined. In an homage to “Easy Rider’s” LSD scene, Andres, Pato and Ecuador take peyote, and the visuals start flipping out, but Martin manages to do the hippie-trippy thing without it feeling arch or forced.
Andres’ veritable antique film camera, which he uses constantly (and which is a too-obvious anachronism), allows Martin to exercise the camera’s p.o.v. and an 8mm frame, which he employs artfully, and in a way that makes an already variegated film more visually versatile.
Ian Brown and Martin Thulin’s superb music leads a mixed but apropos production package. The three actors are wonderful, and as complicated as Frost’s characterizations. Yes, Andres says, when he comes, “the Antichrist will be a Yankee. But what can I say, I admire them.” The auds for “40 Days” will no doubt return the compliment.