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Cannes Critics’ Week Highlights Morelia Fest’s New Talent Focus

Showcase underscores the notable maturity and ambition of short filmmakers in Mexico

CANNES — Four Cannes 57th Critics’ Week shorts, sourced from the Morelia Festival – “Vuelve a mi ,” “Under the Sun,” “In Deep Water” and “Land of Waters, Sea of Mermaids” – highlighted Wednesday the seemingly bottomless well of young talent emerging in Mexico.

In a tradition which runs back to 2005, titles were chosen by Cannes Critics’ Week from a vast spread of fiction, animation and documentary shorts screened every year at Morelia, around 45 in 2017: a rich and ranging panoply, recording Morelia’s origins as a short film festival, which still marks it apart from other big Mexican film events.

Distinguished producer Roberto Fiesco (“David”) and director David Pablos (Un Certain Regard screener “The Chosen Ones”) both had early shorts playing at Morelia. Director Elisa Miller (“El placer es mío”) went straight from winning Morelia with “Watching It Rain” to winning a Palme d’Or at Cannes. The Morelia Festival shorts showcase remains Critics’ Week only festival focus at Cannes.

In recognition of the importance of Cannes Critics’ Week to the careers of Mexican cineastes such as Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Morelia programmed Critics’ Week shorts from its first edition, Morelia Festival director Daniela Michel said at Cannes, emphasizing the “diversity” of the films on display.

If there is a common link threading all four, it may indeed be their high production values, notable for shorts sometimes made at film schools wither even being graduation films.

The four titles on display yesterday, and comments made by their makers at Critics’ Week, left little doubt, moreover, to the youngest generation of filmmakers’ sensitivity – sometimes through implication rather than on-the-nose exposition – to the phenomena shaping Mexico: Drug cartel violence; machismo, deep religious faith, the folklore of a recent, far more superstitious past.

If “Vuelve a mí” is about anything, director Daniel Nájera said at Critics’ Week Espace Miramar on Wednesday, it’s “the loss of innocence.”

Morelia’s 2017 Ojo winner for Best Mexican Short Fiction Film, “Vuelve a mí” kicks off with a sister and brother, Josue, and Rosita, being driven to a shack outside Chihuahua. He’s 10, she’s 15. They sell vegetables at the city market, play tag on the long walk to the shack. One day, an older boy tries to kiss Rosita at a party. She resists. The next day, going to get a cloth from another stall at the market, she disappears. Josue goes on working at the market. One day, he imagines her coming back, and taking his hands in hers.

Set at the height of a 2006-10 cartel turf war, “Vuelve a mi” is shot with the camera hugging the two kids, “like a series of fragmented memories,” Nájara said. The inconsequentiality of some scenes melds with the inconclusiveness of Rosita’s disappearance. No explanation is given; life goes on. Chihuahua sees lots of women disappear, Nájara commented at Cannes.

Linked by notable performances by their lead actresses, Eduardo Esquivel’s “Under the Sun” and Miguel Labastida González’s “In Deep Water” register other different fates of women in México.

Anchored by Martha Claudia Moreno’s lead performance, “Under the Sun” drills down on the consequences of machismo. Having got a new haircut at a hairdressers, Ana (Moreno), in her ‘40s, determines to leave her husband. She rounds up her children and heads for her mother’s home.

The enormity of the decision, and her emotional and practical dependence on her husband, is seen in small details – married, she’s given up driving, for instance – and a sense that the only life open got her as a single woman is solitude until death.

Some details – she runs over the family dog with the car, would in another context seem comic if it were not for the tragedy of her helplessness. For this woman, a break-up is an end, not a new beginning.

Esquivel now has his graduation films, “Playa de gaviotas,” in post-production. He is preparing his first feature,  documentary, which he described as “an ode to queer adolescence in an indigenous village.”

Your daughter needs psychiatric help, a doctor  tells the mother, after Aurora (Miriam Balderas,” Somos lo que hay”), who has a tendency to wander off, is found face up floating in a lake near her village. When the still absent-looking Aurora falls into a trace, head thrown back, staring towards the heavens, and a villager – seemingly miraculously – is suddenly able to walk without a limp, her villagers take her to be a saint. They engulf Aurora with petitions.

Balderas studied Marian apparitions and the “energy, nervous-system” stances of people witnessing an apparition for her performance.

“I trued to establish a balance, an ambiguity,” added director Miguel Labastida González. “In Deep Water” never proves that Aurora does not perform miracles – though the evidence is slim. But it does deliver a quietly lamenting portrait of  a Mexico still in need of saints and miracles to compensate for its lack of  a strong welfare state aid.

“Land of Waters, Sea of Mermaids” also turns with a large ambiguity on superstition. From producer-director Delia Luna Couturier, it features scenes of a hectic, tourist-filled river in Xochimilco, Mexico, juxtaposed with tranquil shots from further downstream, overgrown and overrun by plants and animals. Tales of mystical creatures are told while the camera slowly bobs with the current and reflections in the water; final immersive scenes recreate the memories of a narrator of her childhood, and local witches. She recalls that she was was told that if one licked her, she would die.

Young people dismiss the veracity of such legends out of hand, Couturier said at the Critics’ Week, adding they were used as a element of control by parents over children. But they still inspire the imagination of Mexicans, whose cinema – think Guillermo del Toro’s “Cronos” – sports a rich and inspirational vein of legends and horror. The finale of Couturier’s documentary excels in recreating a child’s fear, as shadowy figures with torchlights, supposed witches, return in early morning.

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