Opening your film with a quote from Marcel Proust is certainly a choice, and “This Is Not Berlin” does its best to back the bold move. In his fourth narrative feature, Mexican filmmaker Hari Sama paints a vivid, if dizzying, portrait of his hometown, Mexico City circa 1986: There’s a steady stream of music, art, and literary references; broadly painted caricatures of youth searching for identity; hypnotic montages of political performance art; and full-frontal male nudity.
Using the underground avant-garde art scene as its backdrop and a wayward teenage boy as its protagonist, “This Is Not Berlin” renders the follies of youth through a kaleidoscopic phantasma of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Despite all the compelling decoration, however, there are few surprises.
The story follows Carlos (Xabiani Ponce De León), a fatherless teen who watches his little brother as his mother (“Roma” star Marina de Tavira) stays in bed hungover all day. He spends his days participating in massive group fights with other boys, and fawning over dirty magazines with his best friend Gera (Jose Antonio Toledano), who has a clever side hustle renting out his father’s secret stash to classmates. Naturally, Carlos lusts after Gera’s alternative older sister Rita (Ximena Romo), and the friends are thrilled when they’re finally able to convince Rita to take them out one night. Against her better judgement, she sneaks them into an underground club called the Aztec, a hedonistic den of sexual freedom where the substances flow and the music is loud.
Enlivened by exposure to their new scene, Carlos and Gera soon realize what the other kids at school might think of their new sexually fluid friends. “Is this a fag bar?” Gera asks his sister, to which she replies coolly: “It’s an everything bar.” Later, he’ll deliver this same missive to the guys at school as they warm the bench in their matching soccer uniforms. Their friendship is tested when Carlos goes out one night without Gera, at the invitation of a boy with a mulleted mohawk who’s clearly interested in more than a party buddy. Never taking his eyes off the women around him, Carlos explores this new world of nude photography, group body-paint sessions, and poetry readings complete with live blow jobs with an open mind.
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During one of these orgiastic art-making drug-fueled sessions (it’s unclear which activity takes precedence), an unnamed character screams the title of the film into the void: “This is not Berlin! Our friends are dying! All you do is party every night!” In its most generous interpretation, “This Is Not Berlin” applies a critical lens to art-making, or the performance of art-making, and the dangers of de-contextualizing one’s art from one’s lived experience. Apparently taking this advice to heart, the group mounts political performances during the national soccer games, hijacking a video feed with images of gay sex, declaring “soccer is homophobia,” and marching defiantly during a parade, the word “GAY” scribbled in red paint all over their naked bodies.
Ultimately, the film suffers from the same diagnosis that gave the film its title. Scenes rush by as quickly as the mounds of cocaine and faceless orgy scenes, creating a scatterbrained collage of provocative images devoid of context or meaning. De Tavira is severely underutilized as the mother; in what’s meant to be a pivotal scene, she violently smashes plates at a sink as if the director could conjure emotional resonance by sheer force of will.
The strongest relationship in the film is the friendship between Carlos and Gera, but the throughline is lost by the third act. By the time the distance between the boys finds resolution, so many other things have happened that it’s hard to care. At 115 minutes, Sama could have easily trimmed a few sloppy and disparate montages in lieu of focusing on the central friendship. More attention also could have been paid to Rita, who has a great early scene in which she calls out her literature workshop for being misogynistic, but the character feels like a one-dimensional sketch. The viewer sees her only as Carlos sees her, a cool older girl fronting a hip New Wave band. Unfortunately for the film, Sama is uninterested in viewing things from her perspective.
In the third act, “This Is Not Berlin” barrels haphazardly to its conclusion by shoving in resolution after resolution over one wild night and its near-tragic fallout. The film has style in spades; it would have substance, too, if only it knew when to quit.
Samuel Goldwyn Films will release “This Is Not Berlin” at the IFC Center in New York on August 9 and in LA on August 23.