A major theme of recent Latin American cinema — the erosion of the family caused by a parent leaving to work elsewhere in an endless chain of abandonment — assumes archetypal, quasi-mythical dimensions in Jorge Perez Solano’s “La tirisia.” Set in an arid landscape of towering cacti and cultivated salt flats, inhabited by women rooted to the earth while their men wander restlessly, the film is haunted by tirisia, a perpetual sadness defined as “the death of the spirit.” An exemplar of flourishing Mexican cinema, this slow-building, powerful film, told in imagistic pantomime, could lure arthouse auds beyond the fest circuit.
The film centers around two pregnant women. First, there’s Angeles (Gabriela Cartol), a sullen teen who seldom speaks, endlessly toys with her braid and sprawls on piles of salt, sifting it through her fingers. She lives with her equally mute mother, Serafina (Mercedes Hernandez), and her stepfather, Sylvestre (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), who has impregnated Angeles. The three seldom display any affection or emotion, Serafina appearing merely stoically upset when her husband peremptorily hauls her daughter off for rather one-sided sex. She resolves to send her daughter away once the baby is born and raise it herself. Sylvestre, meanwhile, roves around in a dilapidated pickup or stares longingly at planes passing overhead, secretly hoarding money for an airline ticket out.
The other pregnant woman is Cheba (Adriana Paz), a lively mother of two who gives birth alone on her kitchen floor; only gradually does it become evident that Sylvestre is this child’s father as well. Cheba adores the newborn, but when she learns that her long-absent husband, Carmelo (Alfredo Herrera), is homeward bound, she must make an impossible choice between abandoning the infant or leaving her hubby and other children. When Carmelo returns, he finds that his sexy, vivacious wife has turned into an inconsolable fountain of tears.
Although hints abound as to the cause of Cheba’s tirisia (including an extra basket containing the infant’s umbilical cord, hanging on a tree next to those of her other two children), the total lack of communication that reigns in this silent land discourages any resolution. A startling exception to the film’s oppressive silence is Cheba’s chatty gay friend and confident, Canelita (Noe Hernandez), whose homosexuality makes him the perfect “safe” male helpmate, and whose cheery, affectionate exchanges with his soldier boyfriend contrast mightily with the film’s dour heterosexual pairings.
Solano’s Mixteca is an ancient indigenous region, where the modern world exists only as a lure to elsewhere. In the film’s poetic opening scene, a red plastic bag that has flown in from outside is temporarily caught atop a tall cactus, arresting Angeles’ attention for long moments. A political rally in the church square proves too poorly attended for the candidate to even deign to descend from his motorcade. The ongoing drug wars ravaging Mexico merely traverse this remote area, impacting the inhabitants only when Canelita’s b.f. suddenly disappears, another significant other removed from the picture.
The haunting landscapes of lenser Cesar Gutierrez Miranda (who also co-produced) dominate the film, conveying a desolation mirrored in the timeless costumes and expressions of the peasantry who inhabit them.