When it comes to Dana, the main character in “La Mala Noche,” there are things you can tell just by looking at her: Dana’s wardrobe suggests that she is a prostitute, while her behavior — interpreted by actress Nöelle Schönwald — reveals her experience, from the way she talks to her more hesitant clients to the manner in which Dana banishes tension to arrange her features into a simulation of inviting intimacy before another anonymous hotel room door opens. And yet, in Gabriela Calvache’s brittle, bleak feature debut, that veneer of self-controlled professionalism masks deepening desperation.
Dana is in debt to her despicable ex-lover Nelson (Jaime Tamariz), now a local kingpin with a sideline in trafficking children into sex slavery. Dana’s beloved but estranged young daughter needs expensive medications and Dana herself has a burgeoning drug addiction, depicted, with the same forensic remove as the sex scenes, in a queasy toe-injecting sequence. Though Calvache works hard not to judge Dana for her choices, from the very beginning it is clear “La Mala Noche” is not heading for a “Pretty Woman” outcome.
The first two acts of the film are marked by a woozy subjectivity, enhanced by DP Gris Jordana’s noirish framing and Roberto Frisone’s production design, which is effectively, if somewhat obviously, color-coded: hot pinks, neony turquoises, and sultry silhouettes when Dana is at work; soft ambers, gray sweatshirts, and chintzy interiors when she is at home. But though the images are attractive, they do not glamorize the hardness of Dana’s life. She may be clad only in skimpy lingerie or a form-hugging mini-dress, but she wields her body, which she acknowledges is beginning to age and to “make things difficult,” as though it has been used so much for the pleasure of others that it brings Dana herself little joy. And then we discover, in a further telling, unremarked detail, that Dana’s real name is Pilar. Yet when she is addressed as such, even in her own home by Julián (Cristian Mercado), the one client with whom she has an emotional bond, she insists that she is actually Dana. She seems to have separated body and psyche so thoroughly, and has been acting a part for so long, there’s really no Pilar left.
This observation is compelling, but it’s a problem for Calvache’s narrative, which is stranded between broad sociological inquiry and intimate psychological portrait, as there’s simply not a great deal of depth to Dana as written. The fine-boned Schönwald’s excellent, necessarily physical performance can only do so much to invest Dana with any personality outside the ones she affects for clients and the panicky, regretful mother she is elsewhere. Who she really is and what can have led such an evidently resourceful woman to this predicament remain a mystery, as does her level of awareness of Nelson’s more inhuman activities.
As though to compensate for that lack, Calvache is at pains to draw parallels between Dana and the film’s peripheral female characters through the use of match-cut edits that sometimes work well but sometimes create synergy, like between Dana and Julián’s daughter, where none really exists. And the occasional dalliance with dreamy surrealism, as when Dana walks through a forest being ogled by a series of men while Quincas Moreira’s score sounds its notes of ominous intrigue, tend just to become transliterations of her life as a sex worker, rather than anything more insightful — Dana observing herself going through the motions.
If the story did not ramp up into a thriller, that emptiness and dissociation might well have been the point. Indeed, the film is strongest when it’s describing the banality of ostensibly outlandish events: Dana’s calm, practiced ease in front of the father who wants to stand and watch his diffident son, still in his high school uniform, enjoy his “graduation present”; or the horribly plausible moment when the little girl is snatched from a beach by one of Nelson’s procurers, a soft-spoken, pregnant woman driving a minivan.
These well-staged scenes cannot but be undermined by the deterministic swerve into genre late in the film, as plot mechanics grind into gear to ensure that Dana has literally nothing left to lose before finally confronting her tormentor. But even after the jarring gunplay and high-tension escape sequence, Calvache’s inherent sobriety takes over once again, to land on an ambivalent note. This might be a truthful reflection of the Hydra-like nature of the Ecuadorian sex-slave trade, and indeed of human trafficking worldwide, but feels like a squandered opportunity for a more provocative investigation. Like a character at a key moment who retreats when they should advance, the film drives right up to the gates of the complex moral investigation that the trafficking plague warrants, only to reverse hastily away. It’s the difference between highlighting an issue and actually contending with it, and it’s a shame that “La Mala Noche,” serious in its intentions and admirable in so much of its detail, is content to do the former.