An autistic man’s flight from a life of drudgery and oppressive domesticity leads to something unexpected in Bernardo Arellano’s engrossing feature debut, “Between Night and Day.” Although the director-writer-editor struggles through the narrative’s early sections, he finds a voice and tone in the latter half en route to a conclusion open to numerous interpretations. This is solid festival fare that will be boosted by critical support and modest sales interest, particularly in Europe and Asia.
An odd opening scene depicts Francisco (Francisco Cruz, in his film debut) finding a rat in a Mexico City park and adopting it as a pet. He works as a servant in the home of Victor (Joaquin Cosio), who tolerates what others view as Francisco’s off-putting behavior; Silvia (Carmen Beato), the imperious lady of the house, is cold toward Francisco at best, openly hostile at worst. Adding to the household tension, Victor and Silvia’s grown, live-at-home son Bruno (Gabino Rodriguez) announces he’s been laid off from his office job.
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Unable to look straight ahead due to a permanent crook in his neck, Francisco would appear somewhat suspicious to a stranger encountering him for the first time, which is what makes him such an interesting lead character: The outward appearance conceals a greater truth revealed in due time.
Silvia eventually arranges for sister Gaby (Arcelia Ramirez) to care for Francisco, who can’t possibly fend for himself — or so it seems. But Gaby’s mean b.f. Victor (Joaquin Cosio, overacting) instantly despises the old man, and Francisco realizes he’s left one nasty household for another.
Noticing a river flowing through a city park near Gaby’s place, Francisco packs his few belongings one morning and traces the river’s course to a nearby forest. Suddenly, the pic takes on a new character and rhythm, as the sights and sounds of wilderness fill the screen and Francisco manages for himself — for awhile. Rescued after a nasty fall by banana farmer Modesto (Modesto Velasquez, another wonderful non-pro), Francisco discovers a new friend, albeit one with an uncertain future.
The film’s ability to surprise the viewer with an abrupt change of course is certainly its most notable achievement, and Arellano displays an astute sense of how to mold his material to suit the surroundings. A man on the social margins able to rediscover himself also makes “Between Night and Day” convincingly life-affirming, with a minimum of contrivance.
Damian Aguilar’s vid lensing is adequate though hardly inspired, but what really grabs the eye is Cruz’s quietly felt performance, all the better when some of the pros are chewing scenery.