Mexican actress Teresa Sánchez was gifted with a face made for the cinema, as is evidenced during a tight and long close-up late in director Juan Pablo González’s starkly subdued drama “Dos Estaciones.” Reminiscent of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Sánchez, playing tequila factory owner María, communicates her enraging impotence with the fate of her businesses in every spasm of her misty-eyed visage.
Like the French heroine, María is a leader fighting back tears until the likelihood of defeat and all that such a failure would entail becomes far too close for comfort. Commendably versatile, Sanchez is best known for her supporting part in Lila Aviles’ “The Chambermaid,” where she charmed as the vivacious and talkative housekeeper Minitoy. Last year, she had a bit role in Tatiana Huezo’s “Prayers for the Stolen” (Mexico’s current Oscar entry).
A woman of very few words, Señora María (as her longtime employees and others in town refer to her) personally oversees all stages of the tequila production at her family-owned Dos Estaciones factory in the Jalisco highlands. Her vigorous, dominant presence commands respect. But although she is too prideful to admit it outright, there’s no hiding the financial struggles facing her operation. Mounting debts and pay cuts abound due to a plague affecting the raw material and the proliferation of foreign competitors.
As she wrangles the multi-source onslaught, María attends a birthday party where she meets Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), a younger woman knowledgeable in all the administrative inner workings of the tequila industry. She is just what María needs in more ways than one. González, co-writing with Ilana Coleman and Ana Isabel Fernández, created a story of subterranean powers where no blunt statements are allowed, at times to the film’s detriment.
“Dos Estaciones” hinges on what’s implied in small gestures or deductive physical acts, especially Maria and Rafaela’s, given that the former’s deadpan demeanor makes it difficult for her to land jokes or flirtatious compliments with the desired effect. In that regard, “Dos Estaciones” occupies the same narrative territory as Natalia Almada’s quiet portrait “Everything Else,” starring Oscar-nominee Adriana Barraza, about the routine of a lonely Mexican bureaucrat. María’s romantic advances are unvoiced but not imperceptible.
González’s fiction is so indelibly tied to the reality of the place and its inebriating spirit that certain segments of the film (particularly those focused on the painstaking work of making tequila) give the impression of watching an observational documentary: from opening shots of men harvesting the agave pines, the prolonged cook these undergo, their fermentation, all the way to the final bottling and transportation. By juxtaposing footage of sophisticated machinery with that of rudimentary pine gathering techniques, he configures a holistic overview.
Naturally, González’s background in non-fiction, both as a director and cinematographer, makes itself known in the overall approach, straddling the line between fabrication and factual depiction. Interestingly, he abstained from serving double duties, instead tasking Gerardo Guerra with DP responsibilities. Guerra, whose skill previously concentrated on music videos, delivers a parade of magnificently conceived and controlled compositions; they are almost too precise to believe they were shot on real locations and not sets.
Shooting from inside vehicles or through doors and entryways in the facilities or María’s rustic home, the exactitude in the static frames, likely designed with symmetry in mind, stuns. A shot of María sitting down at a restaurant or a dance sequence involving the two central women best illustrate the level of precision with which Guerra translates spaces into gallery ready tableaux vivants. Outdoor moments unfold in painterly nature landscapes or fireworks cutting through the pitch darkness of the countryside’s sky.
With the decline of her business and attacked on all fronts, María begins to unravel in silence. It’s a lonely life that of someone who inherited such massive obligation and for whom the survival of this material legacy means more than any human relationship. The villain in her story remains mostly faceless, but not completely unnoticed, as the faint sounds of the gringos’ exchanges in English haunt the airwaves. Their methodical exploitation of the land to profit from an alcoholic beverage so culturally tied to Mexico reeks of neo-colonialism in the form unfair rivalry against mom-and-pop distilleries and a slew of garbage celebrity-branded tequilas. That González manages to make these relevant topics legible is a brilliant feat, particularly in light of his film’s oblique approach to exposition.
The same goes for his decision of casting Sanchez as his iron-willed protagonist. That María, in the actress’ body, is a tacitly queer, dark-skinned landowner and businesswoman inherently makes her position as a figure of authority and economic power a cinematic political statement in a country like Mexico where the multiple identities of a character like her continue to be marginalized. Choices are subtle but not arbitrary.
Even subtler in its connection to the main storyline is a subplot following local trans woman and hairdresser Tatín (Tatín Vera), meeting with clients, including María. As Tatín cuts the serious owner’s hair, some details of their connection, though minimal, surface. Opposite to María’s plights, Tatín’s venture, a hair salon in this mostly sleepy rural town, is doing so well she has plans to remodel and expand it. And unlike María and Rafaela, whose relationship feels undefined, Tatín has apparently found someone that’s legitimately interested in her.
A beacon of fortitude, María holds down the fort in this powerfully muted docudrama grounded on Sánchez’s taciturn lead performance. With that in mind, it’s fitting that “Dos Estaciones” is bookended by two tracking shots following María from behind as she examines her domain, always trucking head, obstacles be damned.
“Dos Estaciones” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.