A question as seemingly benign as “You’re Laura’s mother, right?” becomes the moment when Cielo’s life changes forever. The query, posed by a toothy-smiled young man, is born not out of curiosity but out of a need to make sure he’s found the right woman to extort. Even as he grins, there’s a sinister edge to his nonchalance when addressing Cielo, who slowly starts piecing together what’s afoot. Laura did not return home the night before and, as the cocksure young man soon informs her, she never will unless Cielo can come up with an exorbitant ransom fee.
What follows may well be accurately described as a revenge narco-western set in Northern Mexico. But such a synopsis risks sensationalizing the subject matter of “La Civil” and flattening its aesthetic prowess. Just as a mundane interaction kicks off a harrowing search that will leave Cielo (Like Water for Chocolate’s Arcelia Ramírez) with more questions than answers about her daughter’s abduction and its ties to local gangs, much of “La Civil” concerns itself with quiet, introspective scenes that make its sporadic — and tensely thrilling — moments of violence thunder all the more powerfully.
Moreover, the film’s genre trappings don’t use Mexico’s socio-historical milieu as mere backdrop, the way narratives like these so often do. Cielo’s predicament, which has her come up against an indifferent (if not outright corrupt) police force, a brutal armed militia and a scared populace who’d rather not antagonize those armed young men and women who rule the streets with guns and litter its land with unmarked mass graves, becomes a grounded modern fable about a country in crisis, about a people left behind.
A stoic woman by nature, Cielo is a vision of pragmatism at the start of the film. She may be harried and terrified, but this single mother immediately sets out to find the money needed to bring back Laura, eventually cobbling together (almost) enough money for the ransom. But when that doesn’t yield any results, she ends up taking justice into her own hands. She questions her neighbors, tails key figures around town, and follows hurriedly-offered leads. At every corner she encounters a culture of silence and apathy that’s been left unchecked, a response and now an added cause of the rampant impunity in the region.
Cielo isn’t the only person being extorted nor is she the first mother forced to live with the tragedy of not knowing what happened to her own child. But hers is an unwinnable situation, even when she ends up connecting with a ruthless army lieutenant whose violent means at first terrify and later embolden Cielo to reach her required end.
Filmmaker Teodora Ana Mihai, who was born in Romania and is now based in Ghent, Belgium, initially conceived “La Civil” as a documentary. And while the final project, which she co-wrote with Mexican-born writer Habacuc Antonio de Rosario, is very much a work of fiction, there’s a nonfiction sensibility that still echoes through the film itself. There’s at once a closeness and a distance to Mihai’s camera. When Cielo is in her car, for instance, we ride alongside her as she scans sidewalks and streets for any clues as to what happened to her daughter. At one point, when she leaves the car to knock on a door of an establishment that’s clearly closed or when her gaze falls on those flatbed trucks carrying armed soldiers, these scenes are framed by the car’s windows. Such moments further underscore the observational approach that structures “La Civil,” whose languid pacing allows audiences to really get to know its central character, the better to mourn alongside her. You never lose sight of Cielo but you can’t help but feel like you’re intruding on her private sorrows, as if Mihai wanted us to catch moments not even the most intimate of nonfiction shoots could have staged.
Front and center throughout is Ramírez. The veteran Mexican actress, who has handily shuttled between broad mainstream TV fare and celebrated indie films, gives here a towering performance. With her hair pulled back and a roving gaze constantly tracing her every gesture, Ramírez dominates the film, capturing the helplessness of women like Cielo who have no choice but to steel themselves lest their pain fully break them. She makes watching Cielo’s grief ossify into a senseless, hopeless rage inevitable, a modern tragedy that you know continues to be replicated in households all over the country.
Akin to recent projects like “Sin señas particulares,” “Fauna” and “Somos,” “La Civil” rightly centers this narrative about narco-violence not in its perpetrators but in its victims. Even as you follow Cielo’s ever-darker path toward truth (if not justice), Mihai and de Rosario make clear they’re not interested in neatly-packaged chronicles of good and bad guys but instead hope to diagnose a broken system that fails all involved. Even the moments that feel so obviously cribbed from Hollywood thrillers (a war-like nighttime raid shot in one long, shaky take; a cathartic shower following an unspeakable moment of violence; a DIY haircut meant to help Cielo refashion her sense of self) feel distinctly fresh. “La Civil” may lure you in with the thrill of a revenge tale but such a generic promise only makes its necessarily anticlimactic ending all the more damning. This is a gripping and heartbreaking film that goes out with a whimper that hits harder than any kind of bang it could’ve mustered.