Only a small handful of films are produced in Costa Rica every year, and even fewer (if any) are afforded any sort of international distribution. But, however unfortunate that may be, the fluorescent purgatory of Jurgen Ureña’s “Abrázame Como Antes” is made all the more striking by virtue of its uncertain commercial future — Ureña’s second feature is a beautiful micro-portrait of a world that tourists and foreigners may never see, and the movie’s power is only compounded by the unavoidable fact that most tourists and foreigners will never see it.
Borrowing its name from a line in Jeane Manson’s 1979 pop hit “Avant de Nous Dire Adieu,” “Abrázame Como Antes” tells a story that’s canopied beneath the muted evening hum of streetlights and distant cars. The film’s title translates to “Hold Me Like Before,” and every frame of this tender still life buzzes with the fresh absence of someone’s touch. It begins with transsexual prostitutes Verónica (Imena Franco) and Greta (Natalia Porras) standing on a street corner in their glitziest dresses, the former in a sparkly red number and the other in a glittery purple rendition of the straps that Milla Jovovich wore in “The Fifth Element.”
It’s an ordinary night for the two roommates, who bicker about whatever as they amble along the cobblestones with their eyes peeled for potential clients. It’s only later, after the sex workers have been swooped into a car together, that the evening hits a pothole. More specifically, the vehicle hits a person — a homeless teenager called Tato (Camilo Regueyra). The driver barely slows down, but Verónica hops out of the car to help.
The film’s documentary-like remove doesn’t allow us to glean very much raw data about any of these characters, but it’s strikingly clear that Verónica has an unfulfilled maternal streak that cuts deep. She and Greta are both cut off from their families (as, we’re left to assume, is the case with many of the women who share their profession) and deprived the opportunity of starting families of their own, which perhaps explains why Verónica keeps a religious altar to the mother who abandoned her. “Nobody is asking for your help” Greta scolds her, but Verónica doesn’t need Tato to ask, she just needs him to recuperate in her home and not steal anything while he’s there.
That’s enough of a plot to sustain Ureña’s ambient one-hour narrative, which — aside from a beautiful chunk of exposition in which Verónica seeks advice from the local psychic — prioritizes raw atmosphere over drama. Imagine “Tangerine” on tranquilizers and you’ll be on the right track.
Unfolding like a Central American response to the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Pedro Costa (two very different artists who share a steady gaze and a similar knack for eking the spiritual out of the dilapidated), “Abrázame Como Antes” features an exquisite cast entirely comprised of non-professional actors, and asks you to stare at these people until your eyes cross and their blurred images hatch some kind of ineffable truth. The film only grows more abstruse as it sinks deeper into its nightlight glow, veering into extended cabaret performances and watching the characters as they sleep. Even the romance between Greta and Teto blossoms at the speed of chemicals bubbling in a lava lamp, their off-screen sex suggesting an affair that’s numb to everything but the present moment. The birds continue to coo over the soundtrack, the radiators continue to rattle.
“Abrázame Como Antes” never coheres into anything more than that, but even the film’s most performative moments register with a pronounced honesty, offering just enough substance — and devoting just enough time — to create something convincingly honest. There’s ample room for Ureña to dig deeper (the filmmaker seems a touch afraid of the artifice he invites, as though skittish that the whole thing could wobble towards melodrama at any moment), but his vision of people stuck between the gutter and the sky is layered thick with meaning.
“What would have become of you if you’d never met me?” Verónica asks Greta in one early scene. “We all have an angel: I’m your angel, and you’re my angel.” Greta scoffs, and maybe she should. But those words buoy every subsequent shot of the gauzy movie that follows, suggesting that salvation — like family, or home — looks different to everyone. If only more people got a chance to see it.
“Abrázame Como Antes” plays this week at the Costa Rica International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.