A Haunting Hunt for a Lost Lover; Julian Hernandez's "A Thousand Clouds"
by Howard Feinstein
"I'll call you." We've all heard it, or said it, with little or no follow-through intended -- no matter that such a dismissal nibbles away at the recipient's soul. In Mexican director Julian Hernandez's exquisite, frequently explicit "A Thousand Clouds of Peace" (opening tomorrow in New York and L.A. from Strand Releasing), crop-topped teen Gerardo (Juan Carlos Ortuno) has passed his number to unresponsive tricks more often than he can bear. Several add insult to injury by offering him money, which he rejects. In the film's nocturnal opening scene, one such man is a motorist whom Gerardo services at the steering wheel in a desolate Mexico City spot. When Gerardo hooks up with a young man, Bruno (Juan Carlos Torres), who is actually tender, he goes off the deep end with his infatuation. Unfortunately, Bruno also offers the fatal three words, and even misses a follow-up rendezvous, merely sending a cowardly note explaining that he doesn't want to hurt him. The rest of the film is, in a black and white both noirish and Bressonian, Gerardo's "via Dolorosa," his painful hunt for this phantom lover.
"Gerardo is obsessed with love," the Mexico City-based Hernandez explains. "It's an idea of love that might be absurd and old-fashioned, but still the one that we must all endure at least once. It's a love, in the German Romantic tradition, that makes you fall into an abyss and test your own limits. It can force you to suppress your own ego for the other person. Gerardo constructs his personality with this obsession as its foundation." The besotted boy even looks around the bus station in Bruno's faraway neighborhood of Ciudad Azteca.
Gerardo has little else in his life. He has sacrificed to live independently as a gay man in a macho culture. We learn from a disastrous visit to his mother that he has dropped out of school, that he has no trade. He lives in a tiny, spartan apartment above the overlit downtown pool hall where he works (and frequently cruises) as an attendant. Paint is peeling all over the building. In his free time, he eagerly frequents a highway overpass to look for men. "It is representative of the places in Mexico City that homosexuals have made their own," says Hernandez. Waiting is as much of a trope in "A Thousand Clouds of Peace" as exchange (numbers on paper, currency, even tissue for clean-up).
Many of the encounters he has on his journey commence there, amidst a grubby but architectonic, semi-industrial landscape. Several people he meets recognize his pain from their own experiences. "Nothing hurts more than love," says one forward, effeminate man. "We love people because of what we put of ourselves in them. Keep looking toward the sky." (No saint himself, Gerardo tosses the fellow's number on the stairs the morning after spending the night with him.) Gerardo even saves a despondent young woman, suffering from lost love, from jumping onto the freeway. Occasional acts of Christian kindness emerge in this harsh milieu. It is as much heaven as hell.
Cinematographer Diego Arizmendi, who also shot Hernandez's shorts, creates a skewed chiaroscuro environment perfectly congruous with his protagonist's anxiety and desperation. Gerardo says very little. He gestures only minimally, while the camera moves freely around him. He is a malleable prop in a universe that has a palpable presence both spiritual and visceral. In once scene, he is lured by a muscleman into a remote spot, only to be gay-bashed. On the opposite end of the spectrum are intimate scenes during which, fantasizing Bruno's presence in his bed, he makes love to a specter. This rich, sophisticated marriage of form and content should be required viewing for our own directors of gay material.
Hernandez's choice of black and white was not gratuitous. "Film is a passion that I inherited from my mother. She knew everything about the movies: actors, directors, their love lives. She had a lot of sons, so she used to leave me in front of our kitchen's black-and-white TV watching Mexican films. I grew up believing that the most extraordinary love stories were possible if I shot in black and white. After I learned to direct, I never doubted that most of the audiences my age (mid-thirties) feel something genetic unraveling when they see a black-and-white film. Then they believe that the love story they are watching could happen to them."
The soundtrack is felicitous with the visuals. Gerardo often speaks in a voice-over that distances the viewer from the action he describes-another Bressonian device. Hernandez places chorale music over the scene of the beating. Frequently he uses highly melodramatic love songs. Gerardo searches for a recording of one romantic song he has heard in an old Spanish movie, and which he and Bruno had listened to together in a café. He finds the record in an outdoor market, then plays it over and over while he stares at his telephone. The lyrics are both haunting and intentionally overdetermined. "A fearless man swore he'd love me to death/those black eyes that nailed my soul." You get goose bumps.
Ultimately, Gerardo, after a literally painful bout of anonymous sex, has a cathartic experience: He laughs and falls to the ground. In the controlled world Hernandez builds, this is a volcanic eruption. We hear him in voiceover, "You don't know how long has been my way to be with you." Yet enough ambiguity follows that you cannot be sure if he has matured or remained in limbo. The director does not resolve Gerardo's dilemma for you: That would be too easy. And that is why the film continues to haunt after the final credits roll.