Films about illegal immigrants entering the U.S. from Mexico rarely make much room to survey what’s going on on the south side of the border. Whether it’s as goodhearted as Fast Food Nation or as histrionic and condescending as Babel or Sangre de mi sangre, the recent films about border crossings have been marked by a peculiar indifference to daily life in Mexico, and hence the struggles of living there (which fuel the narratives themselves in essence) are opaque, even academic. Rigoberto Perezcano’s debut feature, Northless follows a young Oaxacan man, Andres (Harold Torres), whose single goal is to cross to the U.S. to join his wife and children, yet we hardly see anything north of the border. Instead, Perezcano details an environment, a muted desperation, and a nearly existential futility.
Beginning with gorgeous hushed shots of the sun rising over mountains, accompanied only by the songs of birds, Northless initially appears to be another example of the static-framed art cinema typified by, say, Lisandro Alonso or Fernando Eimbcke. Yet Perezcano shows more interest in temporal inchoateness than in perfecting the long take; landscape is essential to the film, but Andres is not fixed in space or time, and his stop-and-start mission becomes something of an end in itself. The film follows him, rather than traps him in tableaux. Ultimately it’s about his friendships, and half-realized romances, with two women he meets in Tijuana, a kind store owner, Miss Ela, and the young woman who works for her, the latter whose husband also crossed and never came back as he promised. Helping out at the store while trying to plan his next escape, Andres grows close to them, yet he never abandons his pursuit, even when they subtly try to persuade him otherwise.
Of course, all this is told with minimum exposition; these are stoically drawn characters, although Perezcano occasionally allows them to let down their armor, especially Miss Ela, seemingly indomitable but unavoidably lonely. It’s a portrait of stasis that’s appropriately ruminative and quiet (we only hear “Claire de Lune” or the occasional jukebox song on the soundtrack), but not airless or noticeably pleased with its own technique. Even its less than subtle political notes (not once, but twice, is there a closeup of framed pictures of Bush II and Schwarzenegger on the wall of the border patrol station) manage to come across as parts of a quotidian whole. For Perezcano these are not merely figures in a landscape; hopefully his second film will be as refreshingly humane and lacking in glibness. —Michael Koresky