A thread of toxic male lying, cheating, stealing, abandoning and violence connects the scattered pieces director Gian Cassini assembles into the family quilt of “Comala.” Investigating the life of a hitman father killed in 2010, this very personal inquiry doesn’t have much to offer those anticipating a bigger-picture analysis of Mexican criminal syndicates and social inequities lurking in the background. But it’s a quietly engrossing use of the documentary form to probe issues seemingly passed from one generation to another, leaving children both fatherless and oft-inclined to repeat that missing person’s errors.
Known to some as “El Jimmy,” James Oleg Cassini Monarrez was shot to death in a police ambush that may have happened because of a jilted lover’s tip. While his son never succeeds in meeting that “woman scorned,” he cannot blame her for the betrayal, as Jimmy’s pattern with such squeezes seems to have been one of use, abuse, and desertion. His own mother separated from the man when Gian was an infant. Though she still prefers not to believe the worst about him, she laughs at the absurdity when asked if he’d provided any financial support after their split. Indeed, Gian and other kids in the family were sometimes farmed out to friends or relatives because their single mothers were too busy working nonstop to care for them.
Gian recommenced a long-distance relationship with his father at age 14, paying annual visits to Tijuana that stopped six years later (for reasons not revealed until late here). Till then, he hadn’t even known he had siblings. We meet half-sister Nenette, who grew up mostly in the U.S. But as with Jimmy himself, we only catch glimpses in old home movies or photos of half-brother Tony, whose saga all too clearly echoed dad’s — albeit ending in gunfire at age 25 rather than 42.
Flying around the country to speak with surviving relations, Gian gets some startling if incomplete glimpses of those late lives from his ex-con Uncle Daker (who offers the bleak — and only — explicit sociopolitical insights here) and grandmother Mavis. Less helpful, if illuminating nonetheless, is her ex-husband Gustavo, a teenage Cuban revolutionary turned former CIA employee. Sidestepping questions about his own past behaviors while showing off a home arsenal, he’s a survivor, if no role model — but then he too seems to have been shaped by childhood abandonment.
The emphasis here is not so much on criminal deeds (though Cassini men appear to have participated in quite a variety) as the impact of absent and/or abusive personalities on kith and kin. Gian manages to be on-camera quite a bit without pushing “Comala” into vanity-project realm, his own adult life ignored to focus on sleuthing after blood connections and their hidden backstories.
Named for the fictive town in Mexican literary classic “Pedro Paramo,” the film occasionally drags a bit, but mostly weaves its mix of interviews and various archival materials into an involving first-person quest. There’s not a lot of fuss to the smooth if low-key packaging elements, which despite the lurid existences some deceased figures here seem to have lived, eschew any distracting stylistic flash in visual presentation or musical scoring.