Estranged siblings gathering weary forces to check in on their distant parents rarely makes for a good time in real life, but onscreen in Nicolás Pereda’s “Fauna,” it’s a rife setup for awkward moments and cringe comedy refracted through an oddball lens. Dry as a bone and shot with clinical detachment, the latest entry in the evolving Pereda cinematic universe is both a dysfunctional family dramedy and a droll sendup of celebrity obsession, using the global fever surrounding Netflix’s “Narcos” as an entry point into the life of actors, creators, and those who watch them from afar. Elliptical to the point of alienating and coy to invite you into its world, “Fauna” follows its own strange star.
Luisa (Luisa Pardo) and Paco (Francisco Barreiro) are on a road trip. She is an aspiring actor, he a more successful one, and they’re going to visit her parents in a rural village in Mexico. She hasn’t seen them in awhile, and her brother Gabino (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez) will be joining them. When the three meet up, it’s instantly uncomfortable, but the encounter, like the majority of the movie, unfolds with calm measures of precision. Something is not right with this trio, and while the movie never explains it, you have to assume there is some buried trauma happening. Gabino lights up a cigarette, and Paco wants one too, but it’s Gabino’s last, so Paco endeavors to buy more. The bodega is fresh out, but the last lucky patron has another pack he’s willing to sell Paco for a cool 100 pesos. Paco obliges, but Gabino isn’t keen on shelling out so much for a pack of smokes in exchange. Cue the unsettling first meeting between a guy and his sister’s boyfriend whom he thinks is a hack.
At Luisa and Gabino’s parents’ house for dinner, no one likes the taste of the alcohol they’re drinking, so the boys speed off to a local bar, where it’s revealed Paco is a somewhat decorated actor fresh off a run in “Narcos: Mexico,” the wildly popular Netflix show about the fractious underbelly of drug cartels in Central America. (Francisco Barreiro, in fact, in reality, has had quite a run on the show.) Gabino and his dad ask Paco to re-enact a scene for their amusement, and after insisting his part isn’t that significant, he caves and offers up an actorly monologue that wows the (very small) crowd.
“Narcos” is a huge hit for Netflix around the world, and Pereda is interested in investigating that obsession. Halfway through “Fauna,” when Luisa asks Gabino what he’s reading, the movie diverts into a shadowy, noir-tinged meta story about a man (also played by Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez) looking for someone named Rosendo Mendieta. Everyone tells him to stop looking, including a nonplussed motel worker (also played by Luisa Pardo). Something is wrong, and someone is in trouble, but “Fauna” never quite lets you in on exactly the nature of what’s happening. The film becomes a sort of postmodern detective story with no ending or beginning, as the cast is reshuffled into a new narrative.
Mexican-Canadian director Pereda, who has nine features under his belt and generally deploys a rotating cast of the same group of actors, is fascinated by what drives performance. Luisa, sleepless in the night against her mother in bed, is frazzled by an impending audition, and so summons her mom out of bed to help her read her lines. Anyone who’s ever had proximity to a burgeoning actor can relate to the pain of this scene, as Luisa delivers a fraught monologue about generational wounds, and her mother is forced to endure the live reading of an overwritten script, and kindly offers to take over and do it better.
“Fauna” is exploratory in ways not unlike another festival darling, Hong Sang-soo, who similarly relies on his actors to find inventive ways to recreate the same scenarios involving tormented masculinity and femme fatales who feel out of place in a world so against them. At 70 minutes, “Fauna” is over as soon as it begins. Its critiques on the cultural obsession with violent content, and how fiction can bleed into reality for the most vulnerable target, are fleeting but deliver in their modest doses.
There is a chilly gloom hanging over this movie, not unlike the films of Michelangelo Antonioni or Robert Bresson, chiseled with a lapidary precision but also, ultimately, devoid of a soul. That may be the point, but to what end? The landscapes, as framed by cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro, are cold and empty, just like the insides of these people. “Fauna” is an aggressively strange oddity, but Pereda is an accomplished enough director to drive it home. Wherever that is.
“Fauna” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.