Desperate times call for desperate measures. And bleak times, it seems, call for bleak urban dramas. Not that the Venezuelan film “The Inner Glow” deserves to be reduced to such a moniker. But there is no escaping that the dour sentiment that pervades Andrés Eduardo and Luis Alejandro Rodríguez’s latest feature is very much the point — even as its title wants to push us out of such darkness. Venezuela’s submission to the Oscar international film category and the winner of 11 awards at the Festival de Cine Venezolano, “The Inner Glow” tells the story of Silvia (Jericó Montilla), a young mother facing her own impending mortality who’s struggling to figure out what she’s to do with her six year-old daughter once she’s gone.
Silvia’s tale, small and intimate as it may be presented, is very much exemplary of a country in crisis. The obvious places where a woman like Silvia would first turn to when she learns of a terminal illness like the one she’s set to battle are all dead ends. The father of her child is in prison. Her estranged mother and father are both, in their own ways, incapable (or outright unable) to take on the responsibility of caring for a child; she’s lost herself in her religious devotion while he’s long lived alone, in a cave, no less. The pharmacy where Silvia’s to get her medication can’t fulfill her prescriptions because of supply chain issues. Even the makeshift daycare where she’s used to leaving Sara (a luminous Sol Vázquez) during the day refuses to do so without squaring her outstanding bills (two months and counting).
The precariousness of Silvia’s position is the driving engine of “The Inner Glow.” The Rodríguez brothers stay close on Montilla throughout the film, capturing the actress’s every anguished gesture. This is a woman who’s been alienated by her family, who can barely scrape by with her service job, and who at times looks at her daughter not with tenderness but with an aggrieved sense of regret. When they walk down the street together, in haste and exasperation, you catch Silvia letting go of Sara’s hand, as if the mere touch of her daughter were repellent — a reminder not just of how inadequate she feels as a mother but, perhaps, even a glint of recognition that maybe she could just leave her behind and find peace there.
The script, which the Rodríguez brothers co-wrote with Julián Balam, is sparse on details. We learn few specifics about Silvia’s terminal illness and gather scant details about the company she works at as a cleaner (or of the boss she interacts with briefly and who may well offer Silvia a way out of her predicament). Her sallow complexion and the squalor she lives in are enough to capture the dire straits she’s in; she spends much of the film at her wits’ end, desperately trying to find an answer to a problem that feels unbearably overwhelming.
Andres Levell’s score is left to do a lot of the heavy lifting. At times it twinkles and matches Sara’s guileless innocence. At others it trills and captures the dizzying way Silvia sees the inhospitable world around her. Weaving in and out of gritty naturalism, capturing the cacophonous urban sprawl that pulsates around Silvia, DP Alexander Barroeta gives us hints of the increasingly dissociative state Silvia’s in. Dreamlike images flicker in and out of focus, at times leaving us to wonder how much of what she’s seeing is a fantasy. She may be present physically, but the more the film careens toward its surprising ending, the more it feels untethered from reality, closer in tenor to the fairy tales Sara and Silvia tell each other in their shared bed when all else around them feels especially bleak.
In the hands of the Rodríguez brothers, this at times unbearably claustrophobic movie is constantly pushing us into the specific so as to get at something bigger, something more universal. There are scenes where it feels like Silvia’s ailment is but an inner symptom of a larger, social ill, where her need to finally let go is less a choice she’s open to and more an inevitable conclusion. “The Inner Glow” may touch on familiar themes and tropes, but taken as a minimalist portrait of a broken system and an indifferent social fabric, it is a remarkable (albeit disheartening) snapshot of modern-day Venezuela.