An over-honest judge is made voiceless after a drive-by shooting he’s convinced isn’t accidental in Daniel and Diego Vega’s largely deadpan black comedy, “The Mute.” The brothers’ follow-up to their debut, “October,” has a similarly restrained style but delivers more of a bite, with a damning portrait of a society where corruption is endemic and betrayal so common it barely rates a raised eyebrow. While there are moments of power, the pic’s metaphor of enforced silence — the one person wanting to shout against the system is muted — renders the concept overly obvious. Fest chatter will be more vocal.
Lead Fernando Bacilio’s win in Locarno as best actor, notwithstanding his deliberately one-note perf, should boost the film’s profile, along with Carlos Reygadas’ attachment as one of the co-producers. It also helps that Peruvian cinema is riding the wave of interest in Latin America, which means “The Mute” won’t be restricted solely to south-of-the-border showcases.
Constantino Zegarra (Bacilio) is a judge in Lima, his office piled high with papers that testify to mountains of bureaucracy as well as an outmoded means of justice. He’s unswerving in observing the letter of the law and is proudly incorruptible by either money or sentiment. When Mrs. Escalante (Iris Silva), whose husband, Jose (Jose Luis Gomez), is dodging a conviction, says, “If you support me, I’ll support you,” Constantino remains unmoved.
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At home, too there’s little that breaks through his unemotional exterior: His only physical contact with wife Otilia (Norka Ramirez) is perfunctory sex in the shower, and his daughter Sheryl (Lidia Rodriguez) is too wrapped up in her teen life to pay Dad much attention. In fact, there’s no love anywhere in “The Mute,” not even from Constantino’s father (Ernesto Raez), who’s more interested in maintaining ties to his well-connected cronies than in expressing genuine concern for his son.
Driving home one night, Constantino is hit in the neck by a bullet and loses his voice; he’s sure the shooting is connected to the Escalantes, though police officer Valdes (Juan Luis Maldonado), looking for some financial incentives, isn’t moved to investigate. For the honest judge, it’s just the beginning of a slide into humiliation that includes a demotion to his old position at a provincial court south of Lima. Sensing a conspiracy, he doggedly seeks answers, though his interpretation of truth may not be the truth.
Perhaps to avoid the feeling that Constantino is too good to be true, the Vegas brothers don’t leave him completely unstained: He’s having an affair with a secretary. Otilia is sleeping with someone else, too, so betrayal is just a natural outgrowth of a society where trust and loyalty are nothing more than tradable, perishable commodities. Constantino’s dalliance in some ways weakens the pic’s metaphor — does he have the right to be the stifled voice of integrity if he too fools around, or are the scripter-helmers saying that even the judge’s incorruptibility is a pose? A potent final shot implies that only the dead can afford the pretense of honesty.
Visuals, courtesy of Fergan Chavez-Ferrer, have a satisfying precision and observational clarity in keeping with Constantino’s poker-faced world, and Gianfranco Annichini’s spot-on editing makes the most of the dark humor; ditto Oscar Camacho’s irony-inflected tunes (all three men collaborated with the Vegas brothers on “October”).