All three of the early-morning programs (which at the 11th Festival Internacional de Morelia means 11 a.m.) are starred, meaning there’s no English translation available. Which also means that I won’t be able to see two films I was looking forward to catching up with, Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox,” and Tudor Giugiu’s “Of Snails and Men.” Today there’s an intriguing film from 1943 called “La vida inutil de Pito Perez;” a program of short prize-winning films from previous years of the Festival; and a presentation of three documentaries by Canal 22 (Channel 22), the television station of the National Council for Culture and the Arts of the Government of Mexico.
But thanks to the 3 1/2 conversation from Mexico City to Morelia that I shared with filmmaker David Pablos, I have a dog in the hunt. Two of the three documentaries are from a series, 20 y + por el arte, of 20 half-hour films that he’s directed about young artists who’ve won state stipends to support their work. I was fascinated, not only by the tales he told of the filming, but by the largesse of the Mexican government, who support his film school, the CCC, as well as Channel 22.
So I show up to check them out. First I see “Javier Sicilia: En la soledad del otro,” (“Javier Sicilia: In Solitude with Others”), a well-meaning and emotional but repetitive and somewhat unfocussed hour about a campaign against the violence of the drug wars in Mexico, spear-headed by the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son Juan Francisco was murdered. One of the two half-hour films by Pablos is about an artist who climbs mountains to take casts of ice formations to turn into sculptures. He had told me that was the most difficult physical task of his life, as he and the crew accompanied her up the mountain. It looks too easy! The other is about a beautiful young woman artist who’s fascinated by magic tricks and mirrors. I’m surprised because I met her at dinner last night, introduced by Mara Fortes, of the Ambulante Documentary Festival, which travels all over Mexico, but I didn’t know then that she was the subject of the film.
I’m not only happy that I tried something out of my comfort zone that satisfies my fantasy that, after three yearly trips to Mexico, I’m understanding Spanish a little better, but that the rest of the day will be subtitled. I love the passionate, melodramatic 1950 film noir “En la palm de tu mano,” (“In the Palm of Your Hand”), part of the tribute to Arturo de Cordova. It’s a “Double Indemnity”-style story, with many twists, about a fake psychic (de Cordova) who blackmails a beautiful woman who’s murdered her husband for his money.
I slide directly from 50s art deco Mexico City to rural modern-day (but timeless) Mexico, in “Penumbra” (Eduardo Villanueva), which was a critical hit this year at Rotterdam and has been to numerous festivals since. I try to get with the program — it’s slow, contemplative, in love with nature, as we follow an elderly hunter’s rituals — but I can’t connect, and flee after half-an-hour. I’m surprised to be tapped on the shoulder by critic Michael Guillen, who was sitting behind me: “You gave me permission to leave!” he says. “Oh,” I reply, “I thought you’d think I was a philistine!”
I duck into “The Man Behind the Mask,” a documentary about two famous Mexican wrestlers, El Santo (The Saint) and El Hijo del Santo, his son, who adopted his silver mask and followed him into the ring and around the world. I’m unfamiliar with the world of Mexican wrestling, or lucha libre, so the entry into that world is fascinating. But the film is something of a hagiography, only hinting at some family discord (there were a number of other sons who neither followed El Santo into the ring nor profit from their father’s history, carefully husbanded by El Hijo del Santo). Even at 90 minutes, it feels long and repetitive, and, near the end, devolves into a virtual commercial for the El Hijo del Santo brand.
I am sad that I have to leave right at the end of the movie, to dash into another theater where “La vida despues” (“The Life After”), by David Pablos, is starting. Completely by accident I’ve been sitting behind El Hijo del Santo, resplendent in a bright white suit and his tight silver mask, and I was dying to see the reaction of the crowd when he was introduced.
But I’m lucky to snag a seat in “La vida despues,” being shown in Cinepolis’ largest theater, reserved for the new Mexican movies and big foreign films of the festival. It’s a poignant story of the road trip that the teenaged sons of a loving but depressive mother undertake to find her after she disappears from their house. It’s extremely well-acted, even by the young incarnations of the two boys. Afterwards all five of the main actors appear for a q-and-a with Pablos; the youngest of the boys amuses himself by making shadow puppets while his elders converse.
I stay in the same big room for “Go For Sisters,” the new movie from John Sayles, with a cast that includes Edward James Olmos, who’s here and popular with the crowd, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross, Harold Perrineau, Isaiah Washington, and Hector Elizondo. Hamilton is a parole officer who gets her old friend and new client Ross to accompany her and disgraced police officer Olmos down into dangerous Mexico to rescue Hamilton’s son from Mexican drug lords who are holding him for ransom. It feels like an oddly commercial story from Sayles, whose movies usually are message pictures: I could see Olmos’ character, world-weary Freddy Suarez, becoming the star of his own TV series. I’m very taken with the strong and beautiful Yolonda Ross, who has 36 credits on imdb.com, but with whom I’m unfamiliar. “Go For Sisters” has two endings: the denouement is abrupt and unconvincing, followed by a low-key reunion of the two women.
It’s after ten, and I’ve had a long day: three short documentaries and five full movies, plus half-an-hour of a sixth. But the memory of the music from the nightclub just above my room, and the sounds wafting up from the outdoor screening on the plaza right across the street, keep me in the Cinepolis. I stick around for “For Those in Peril,” a first feature from Paul Wright, part of the program from Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique, which has brought seven films to Morelia. Charles Tesson, the Semaine’s General Delegate, introduces it as an interesting combination of realism and fable. Aaron (well-played by George McKay) suffers a nervous breakdown after being the soul survivor of a fishing accident that claimed the lives of all the five other occupants of the boat, including his older brother. I vacillate while watching between admiration and discomfort, but it’s certainly a movie I never saw before. I’m happy I stuck around, especially when I return to a blessedly quiet room.