Approaching its 22nd year, San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) is one of the longest-running and most respected cultural programs in the county. Its reach naturally extends into Mexico, where screenings at local universities and media coverage have helped develop an audience interested in films about issues ranging from identity to immigration.
SDLFF has also been an active participant in the various stages of evolution experienced by Mexican cinema since Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro initiated a new wave of filmmaking in the early 2000s. As those artists were eventually drawn to bigger budgets and Hollywood stars, directors like Gerardo Naranjo, Carlos Reygadas, Luis Estrada and Nicolás Pereda have filled the void, critically examining and reframing the violence, class division and political unrest that often dominate the headlines.
While SDLFF's annual program includes works from numerous nations and genres, Mexican cinema has always been a staple of the festival's curation, including many films by the above auteurs. For 2015's edition, which runs March 12 through 22 at the AMC Fashion Valley Cinemas and North Park's Digital Gym Cinema, this trend continues.
Navajazo, Ricardo Silva's fractured and insane pseudo-documentary, suggests Mexico's current social landscape resembles an apocalyptic scenario, demystifying the pop-culture allure of drugs and crime that's so glamorously perpetuated by narco culture. Drone shots overlooking vast cement riverbanks lead to shanty towns populated by addicts. A KISS enthusiast sings of the devil from a makeshift musical venue. Grainy home videos play amid cryptic voice-over narration describing a vast plague that wipes out the world.
What do we make of all these colliding and sometimes contradictory images? Silva suggests they represent personal and collective spiritual crises, which reverberate outward through random violence and absurd sexual dalliances, ultimately pulling the veil from the artifice of filmmaking itself. Much of it feels pretentious, but also strangely vital.
Alonso Ruiz Palacios' lovely and sublime Güeros is far less demanding yet equally invested in the psychological malaise of the everyday Mexican citizen. Shot in bleached-out black-and-white, the film begins with an act of juvenile misconduct committed randomly toward a distraught mother fleeing an abusive relationship.
The teenage perpetrator is promptly exiled by his mother and forced to stay with his brother, who's attending university in Mexico City. But all of the students are on strike, so the siblings and another friend wallow around the house for days, listening to the music of a famous rocker their deceased father loved dearly.
Eventually the narrative spills out into different quadrants of the city when the trio attempts to locate the whereabouts of the aforementioned guitar player. This MacGuffin leads to a series of palpable experiences about ideology, courage and youth activism that confirm that Mexico's next generation is yearning for a positive next step. Palacios' deadpan compositions and slyly resonant pacing remind of another fascinating Mexican filmmaker, Fernando Eimbcke (Lake Tahoe, Club Sandwich).
Then there's Carlos Armella's intoxicatingly odd doc-fiction hybrid En la Estancia, which puts a slightly different spin on the aggression and rage of Navajazo and Güeros. The first half appears to be nonfiction, with a cameraman traversing the abandoned town of La Estancia, where only an elderly man and his grown son live in isolation. Despite being surrounded by rot, these two men seem at peace. Family history, friendship and loyalty all play key roles in their survival off the grid.
Armella then jarringly shifts to a narrative depicting the filmmaker from the first part returning with his pregnant wife to visit his subject after the elderly man has passed away. The collision of tones becomes inevitable; interactions that seemed genuine and tender in the first section take on nefarious connotations in the latter.
En la Estancia's ending feels unnecessarily pessimistic, but it's an ambitious project that dares to juxtapose discomforting realities of Mexico's past with the hopeful prospects of its future, and how the two inevitably overlap.