There have been a lot of coming-of-age-in-the-punk-scene movies, not least because indie cinema really took off in the years immediately following the heyday of punk and New Wave, when the kids raised on that music were fresh out of film school. Still, Hari Sama’s fourth feature as writer-director is something special, and one of the best of its particular subgenre.
“This Is Not Berlin” deploys the wisdom of the director’s now-middle-aged perspective to provide what’s not just a portrait of adolescent liberation, but a snapshot of a moment in middle-class Mexican life whose larger sociopolitical context is both present yet mostly kept in the background (as in Alfonso Cuarón’s recent “Roma”). In the foreground is a vivid, often giddy, but also perilous world of hedonism for art’s sake in which the emerging threat of AIDS is seldom openly addressed yet omnipresent. With a coolness factor off the charts, this musically and otherwise seductive drama is likely to appeal to audiences who lived through the era as well as those who wish they had, both straight and gay.
Long-haired, androgynous-looking Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) is introduced as a gazelle amid butting rams, indifferent to the titanic fistfights between rival high schools that preoccupy most of his classmates in 1986 Mexico City. He lives with a younger brother and a mother so depressed she barely gets out of bed (dad’s whereabouts are left unmentioned).
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His best friend is Gera (José Antonio Toledano), whose domestic situation is more stable, and who earns money “renting” dad’s girly-magazine collection to their prep-school brethren. His older sister is the awesomely hip Rita (Ximena Romo), who has a band with her intimidatingly attractive boyfriend Tito (Americo Hollander). Despite his preference for “hippie” music, as developed by shaggy Uncle Esteban (Sama), he thinks she’s da bomb. She of course barely notices him, at least until his knack for tinkering with electronics salvages their broken keyboard. As thanks, underage Carlos and Gera are snuck in for what’s intended as a one-time-only visit to the pretentious art-noise band’s next gig, at underground club Azteca.
“Is this a gay bar?” Carlos asks, spying two men kissing. “It’s an everything bar,” Rita deadpans. It’s also utterly intoxicating to the two wide-eyed 17-year-olds, as they take in not just the air of cutting-edge musical and polysexual sophistication, but the avant-garde artwork and sense that everyone here is some sort of artist. As it happens, the joint is owned by Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro), a photographer whose studio upstairs is where even more advanced artistic and sexual expressions take place — as well as more open drug-taking.
When they return the next night sans band chaperone for more, however, Carlos and Gera discover that their age is too much of a liability for entry. Worse, in the time it takes them to get turned away, the family car Gera borrowed without permission is broken into. As a result, Gera (and Rita, who still lives at home) are grounded for a month.
But that doesn’t entirely stop them from being a part of the scene. It certainly doesn’t stop Carlos, whose usefulness to the band is a plus, and whose attractiveness to Nico gets him full access, as well as inclusion in some of the family care Gera “borrowed” without permission is broken into’s commingled art-making and political protest activities. He’s not “into boys,” but seems willing to project a certain ambiguity on that matter if it works to his benefit. His increasing insider status drives a wedge between him and Gera, who in terms of emerging sexual orientation might actually have a more rightful place in the club’s homophilic milieu.
Still, the two boys are just that, juveniles, and quickly get in over their heads amid the Azteca regulars’ grownup excesses. “This Is Not Berlin” is too fond of the adventurous subculture they fall into to become a simplistic cautionary tale. But it does capture both the exhilaration and disillusionment inherent in climbing aboard the kind of rollercoaster that leaves a fair amount of casualties behind. Our protagonists are lucky to emerge with just minor damage — but they wouldn’t trade 95% of those experiences for anything in the world, and Sama’s autobiographically inspired flashback makes it easy to share that sentiment.
“Berlin” is highly polished and assured while maintaining a boisterous rough edge appropriate for its subject. Anyone who actually participated in such ’80s avant-gardism will admire the exactitude with which Sama and his collaborators re-create the general flavor and tropes of video, performance, and other underground multimedia art in practice at the time (much of which was, this film’s humorously defensive title notwithstanding, heavily indebted to European and U.S. trends).
Alfredo Altamirano’s widescreen cinematography amplifies the film’s many moods in tactically resourceful terms. Of course, there’s a great array of pre-existing soundtrack choices, from New Wave pop antecedents Roxy Music to the New York gallery vibe of vocal experimentalist Meredith Monk. Rita and Tito’s band is a perfect encapsulation of the imitative, maximally angsty art-squawk you might have heard between poetry readings at off-night campus or downtown venues in the early-to-mid ’80s.
Most of the characters here either have or are trying to conjure a striking “artistic” persona — with variable levels of actual depth below — and the thesps are well-cast, coiffed and costumed for that kind of immediate impact. They also do well conveying ordinary vulnerabilities when called for, particularly the young male leads. Sama provides a nice contrast as an uncle who still flies the freak flag of an earlier counterculture. The only unsatisfying element in the otherwise complex screenplay he co-wrote with Rodrigo Ordóñez and Max Zunino is the underdeveloped thread of Carlos’ mom, whose problems are a major issue yet get scant explanation.