A spectral landscape and a splendid slow trip into time
Mexican Benet's awesome first feature News from Afar (Noticias lejanas) about people in a tiny settlement in the middle of nowhere and the young man who tries to escape marginality by leaving it, is a raw, real, disturbing journey in time as Argentinean Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos is a journey through space, and both movies take us somewhere fraught with danger where we've never been before. Early on in News from Afar, we see Martín both as a little boy and as a tall, thin young man; we also see the little community celebrating with roasted geese they've bashed to death in a lagoon (and we've seen that too) and we see what we later learn is Martín's little brother Beto as a middle-aged man (José Juan de la O). Not Juanito -- the lost son: he died, and their mother (Mayahuel del Monte) was always sad after that.
The movie skips back and forth between past and present, so sure of itself, its locales so hot with rural Mexican reality (Benet has a wonderful eye and a way with actors) that everything flows naturally, if you sit back and let it, and thus the movie establishes a sense of the hostilities and pain that control the little family.
The women call each other "comadre" and the hamlet has no name. They just call it "17" from a milestone on the nearest road. It has a spectral emptiness, it is just a few cinder block houses and an auto parts graveyard and a brick factory, and it seems perpetually on the verge of drying up and vanishing, which eventually it does.
As it sporadically sketches in moments of time, the movie also sporadically lays out its beliefs, or its characters', at the beginning: we're born poor and we die poor; there is such a thing as luck but you must get up very early to find it.
A man and his family are visiting this place in a little car. And then he remembers and his voice-over takes us back and forth, till we leave him and enter into the world of his brother for a long time, and then the brother disappears into California ("the other side") and in time is lost.
That brother's story dominates the screen for a long while, but is only part of the story. The misery of the place, which is drying up, and the oppression of his step-father, the sadness of his mother and the guilt he feels, who knows why, for the death of Juanito cause Martín as a very young man to leave for "the city," that is, Mexico City, to find his father, make his fortune, and bring the others there. Before he goes his mother reaches into the tin box in her treasured wardrobe, her most valued possessions within her most valued object, and hands him a little scrap of paper with all she knows of his father, a phone number.
Martín's journey is difficult, as with all such journeys. A bridge is out and the bus can't go on and he walks with the half-dozen other passengers to a place called Pisarro where there's another bus that comes early in the morning. Or so they're told by a young man playing checkers with himself who's in charge of the place. He has a soft face and looks like Pasolini's actor Franco Citti, who always played degenerate, sensuous roles, and this guy acts like that, later on. They wait all night, the passengers, for the bus but when Martín awakes they're gone and they've stolen his possessions and he's alone. He must stay and work with the young man harvesting corn and hay in a ruined hacienda to make enough money to go on, but after the harvesting when they play like boys the young man, who is rumored to have killed his own parents to gain the hacienda for himself, is too friendly and Martín leaves very suddenly with the little money he's earned and some clothes the man gives him.
The actor David Aaron Estrada, who plays Martín, has a beautiful, long face with full lips and sad, limpid eyes. We see a lot of that face from now on and it takes on a hypnotic quality. Martín's time in Mexico City is not easy. He's homeless and penniless and spends times in the public flophouse where he's befriended by a bearded man, Don Erasmo (Francisco Beverido) and later he is helped by a waitress named Laura (Lucia Muñoz) who befriends him, but turns out to be stranger and needier than he can deal with. This segment of the film is very long, but it's only the beginning. Martín believes "you cannot change the future but you can the past" and an epigraph of the movie goes, "the hardest part of leaving .is coming back." The going back is shocking, but in the end it's a new beginning, and is where the family finally begins to escape from nowhere and wind up somewhere, even if some of them are lost.
Ricardo Benet's spare landscape marked by death, fire, madness and the wanderings of a young man is even more like the masterpieces of Cormac McCarthy (of the Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian) than The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and it has some of the same harsh rural realism as Carlos Reygadas' Japón. News from Afar isn't for the impatient and may never reach audiences beyond the art house, but Benet is clearly another brilliant new Latin American director whose work will be sought out by connoisseurs of cinema: what he provides is simply a wonderful amalgam of intense emotion and unforgettable imagery. Like Alicia Scherson's Play, this is one of the SFIFF's narrative films that is clearly not to be missed.
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