It has been a year and a half since director Li Cheng’s “José” won the Venice Film Festival’s Queer Lion. It would be a shame to let the lag time diminish expectations. After a LGBTQ fest run, the Spanish-language drama — about a young gay man in Guatemala — has opened theatrically and continues to expand. That it does so steadily, quietly, seems perfectly apt for a drama rife with quotidian grace.
Portrayed with unerring soulfulness by newcomer Enrique Salanic, 19-year-old José lives with his mother in a cramped Guatemala City apartment. Theirs is a hardscrabble life. She’s increasingly shooed away by police from a spot on the city sidewalks where she sells meat pies. He hustles a bustling street corner near the restaurant where he works, waving cars toward the curb so that he can carhop food to them. Some afternoons, he slips away for trysts with men he arranges via a cruising app.
His cell provides a lifeline. It’s Grindr but also tender, a device for low-commitment coupling that dangles the possibility of more-at-stake connection. A hookup with a construction worker named Luis (Manolo Herrera in a gentle turn) becomes something more. Both the possibility and constraint of their relationship weigh on José.
Ana Cecilia Mota convinces as the mother who leans heavily on her youngest. She is loving and pious, suspicious of his sexuality and gently manipulative.
Cheng visited 12 Spanish-speaking countries, conducting countless interviews, before hunkering down in Guatemala for two years. The director and his co-writer George F. Roberson exhibit a generous understanding of what personal but fragile liberation looks like for young men in José’s situation. It’s captured in José’s smile — illuminated by a cell phone’s bluish aura in the dark of his shared apartment — followed by a dash through night-time streets. Or expressed in an afternoon motorcycle ride, in which José hugs the curved road as Luis holds a cigarette to his lips. The space of their new love is irrepressible and hermetically sealed off.
Throughout the film, Cheng touches on the omnipresence of the church: a haunting Catholic procession snakes through dark streets; congregants of an evangelical Sunday service lift their hands in praise. Whispered as she labors over household chores, José’s mother’s prayers are desperate — and sincere. Hers is a recognizable love, complicated by an unquestioning religiosity.
“José” pays heed to Guatemala’s braiding of the religious and the cultural, eliciting protective feelings for José and Luis without condemning faith. From time to time, another story of young love (between José’s co-workers) burbles enough to hint as the challenges of young women in the socially conservative country.
The filmmaking reminds us that the life of a place is often carried on its sounds. Guatemala City is noisy with the honks and exhaust-clearing coughs of traffic, of voices selling food and wares, of street corner preachers hawking gospel certitudes. You can almost smell the food cooking at the restaurant, born on a hiss of heat and smoke.
These palpable gestures — as well as other atmospheric glimpses captured by cinematographer Paolo Giron — are likely the reason some reviewers label the film “neo-realist.” Searching for the movie’s cinematic kin, Chloé Zhao’s wondrous “The Rider” comes to mind. It too was predicated on the carefully nurtured relationship of the filmmaker to the story’s location and its denizens.
The movie constantly adjusts our hopes for José’s future. As José navigate slivers of hope and slabs of disappointment, the story feels singular. Its implications are broader. Making us aware of the overlap and the distance between the two is a fine feat in itself. Cheng delivers a mood that is unquestionably human and, at times, unexpectedly hallowed (as when Jose stares down the worn face in a Mayan ruin). “José” brings to light the promise of a director as compassionate as he is observant.