“Fauna” is a curious proposition. On the surface, the ninth feature from Mexican-Canadian independent filmmaker Nicolás Pereda consists of a series of dialogue-driven scenes taking place in a remote Mexican village where an estranged brother and sister are visiting their parents. Yet such a description can’t quite capture the slippery nature of Pereda’s script, which slowly reveals itself as a clever study in performance and identity that mines its cringe comedy to poke fun at contemporary narconovelas and their grip on that country’s cultural imagination.
Highly intellectual in theory (the film debuted in the 2020 virtual Toronto Film Festival’s experimental Wavelengths section), “Fauna” is nevertheless a breezy, utterly beguiling affair, even as it switches gears midway through. At that point, Pereda gamely stages a new, nested narrative, one that reinvents the principal cast as playful film noir archetypes, further muddling the line between fact and fiction in the movie’s world.
“Fauna” opens with working actors Luisa (Luisa Pardo) and Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez) driving along a winding road. Instead of showing the characters, the camera gazes out on the route ahead as they quarrel over directions and offhandedly mention how much more dangerous these roads are at night. Like many of the scenes that follow, this opening moment stresses the way Pereda’s words will be the driving force of “Fauna”: Luisa and Gabino’s conversation functions almost like a radio play for minutes on end before we actually get to see their faces.
By the time the couple arrives at their destination, where her brother Paco (Francisco Barreiro) joins them soon after, their terse, Mamet-like dialogue establishes a truncated rhythm that dominates much of the film. The social awkwardness between Gabino — whose most recent credit is a bit part in “Narcos: México” opposite that one famous Mexican actor whose name no one in the film cares to remember — and the men in Luisa’s family are mere preambles to the central concern of this droll deadpan project.
Keeping his actors in medium still shots throughout, Pereda lets his scenes play out in real time. The discomfort Gabino feels when Luisa’s father (José Rodríguez López) turns his stony gaze on him and asks him to perform a scene from “Narcos: Mexico” is palpable. There is no cut to alleviate the tension, just the mounting stillness that signals to Gabino the scene won’t end until he complies. It doesn’t matter that he had no lines in the show’s first season; Laura’s father insists he show them his acting skills. Watching the actor (who does, in fact, play Francisco Arellano Félix in the Netflix drama) mime his way through a dialogue-free scene is as laughable and discomfiting as it sounds. When asked to repeat it, he delivers a Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo monologue lifted straight from the series’ season one finale.
Rodríguez is entrancing as he expertly mimics Diego Luna’s ferocious version of the character. The actor offers a funhouse mirror of a performance that both quotes and comments on Luna’s portrayal, leaning into an accent and an affectation that will feel familiar even if you miss the specificity of its reference. Similarly, a later scene where Luisa and her mother (Teresa Sánchez) rehearse a monologue from Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata” is both a searing acting showcase and a powerful commentary on the pains of motherhood.
The film’s latter half, which bills itself as a dramatization of the book Paco is reading (a noir-like story about a young man searching for a so-called Rosendo Mendieta: “It’s best if you stop looking for him”) turns “Fauna” into a dark-witted satire that traffics in well-worn tropes about masculine toxicity and queer undertones (flirting, it seems, with that 2001 film that first made Luna a star).
Pereda delights in heightening his film’s absurdity while couching it in otherwise quite mundane moments. The seriousness of his performers (who, as in past collaborations, are finely attuned to his off-kilter sensibility) make what sound like mere acting exercises into probing meditations on performance and storytelling, as well as powerful indictments of Mexico’s contemporary cultural imaginary.
In the tales Gabino, Luisa and Paco weave both for themselves and for the audience, the specter of violence is always hovering right off screen. Word that a miner was disappeared two years ago, or that a woman hopes to help her sister Fauna escape from town, are throwaway lines that hint at an ever present danger that tinges the everyday life Pereda and his acting troupe are conjuring. Their attempts at directing one another, rehearsing lines and constructing make-believe scenarios, feel like attempts at controlling their dour reality, even as they slowly veer into ever darker territory.
With a breezy 70 minute runtime, “Fauna” is a delightful puzzle of a film. Even as it leans heavily into its metafictional conceits, laying bare just how much of its second half, for instance, is pure fantasy (or is it?), Pereda’s actors find ways of unearthing emotionally wrenching moments.