Cortez (2017) Poster


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A Remarkable Look At The Journey and the Enlightenment
quanahlives3 July 2017
"See that finger? That finger is pointing to the moon, but that finger is not the moon." This line is uttered in the first five minutes of Cheryl Nichols directorial debut Cortez. In the Buddhist belief, the moon can represent enlightenment while the finger represents the journey or the teachings. If you only focus on the finger you'll miss the moon. If you look at what the finger is pointing to, you will see it all: the journey that leads to enlightenment. For Jesse—played brilliantly by co-writer Arron Shiver—he is enveloped in his own journey as a struggling musician playing solo gigs in small venues across the southern half of America. He's lost in his own headspace, moving between an unapologetic self-centeredness and a poor self-image hidden beneath a charismatic extroverted front. In the realest sense of the term, Jesse is in his own way in life.

After several of Jesse's shows are canceled due to lacking interest in his solo album (he was once part of a band), he decides to wander into the New Mexico desert to seek out an old flame in a small town he once traversed. While there, Jesse spends time with the locals at a bar his former love interest works at. Once Jesse's ex-love Anne arrives, who is played by co-writer and director Cheryl Nichols, the story of Jesse and Anne begins to reveal a deeper history between these two. Jesse spends the evening with Anne out in the New Mexico plains talking, joking, and sharing intimate glances that lead to a gentle kiss. The following day, Jesse discovers Anne's home address. He arrives at Anne's home to continue their journey when a 10-year-old boy answers the door looking strikingly like Jesse. That is when the actions of Jesse and Anne begin to slow boil to a dinner scene that plays a significant role in the film's final act.

In Cortez, the New Mexico landscape plays a character of its own. While Jesse wanders through the scenery, one can't help but wonder if these lengthy prairies leading to small canyons, rivers and overgrown paths have given Jesse the headspace to see past himself. All the while Anne is emotionally cautious in the endless meadows of her home, unable to show even the slightest bit of sentimentality when a local lover ends their affair at the beginning of the film. Three-quarters of the way through the film, Anne has a few moments alone to tinker around the house, take a bath, and wash dishes. It is here we finally see Anne looking at her life expedition, her own journey, and in the silence of her home let go.

Cortez is what is right with the film industry, while indirectly pointing out what is wrong with it. It brings humanity, truth, and the mortal journey to the audience. It develops its characters without insulting the viewer with lengthy over-explanation or "life review" on screen. It isn't afraid to allow quiet and bodily expression lead the audience into a scene. It does all this with the pain, anguish, confusion and doubt of real life. It tells a story that could be any person's story, and at the same time is no one's story but Jesse's and Anne's. While movies are being churned out where bulletproof heroes are fighting villains in low risk battles, or character driven pieces glorify societal tropes about overcoming the odds, Cortez gives us the smallness of humanness. At the same time, it presents the bigger complexity of choice, freewill and the affect those have on others. It is the movie we need and the movie we deserve. It is the journey to enlightenment without giving away all the secrets to becoming enlightened. As the finger points to the moon, don't forget to look around and see if Cortez is playing near you.
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