There appear to be quite number of films produced in Guatemala but I cannot remember the last time that I saw one. The portrait provided here is of the power of religion in a sector of the middle classes. The country has suffered from military regimes, revolution and civil war, and most recently government corruption. But in this film we only get a sense of a particular fraction and cult. This title was screened in the Berlinale Panorama programme; definitely challenging and controversial.
The film opens as Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) drives into the grounds of a mansion to find both his family and that of his wife waiting for him. The heavy rain presages all is not well; a sense reinforced by the grim visages of the men and a note of hysterias in the women. It takes some time for the crisis to become clear but one gradually realises that either Pablo ‘has come out’ or that he has been ‘outed’ by an acquaintance. How shocking this news must be is emphasized by an earthquake shortly afterwards.
Initially Pablo has to leave home and set up his own apartment, assisted by his current gay partner, Francisco (Mauricio Armas). The film spends quite an amount of time showing Pablo adjusting to this change of life. Whilst initially coy, the first use of the word ‘gay’ is only heard thirty minute into the film, in these sequences the life of gay men is fairly explicit. The apartment is in what seems to be a slum area and we do see life on the nearby streets.
Whilst this has been taking place we have seen the family members attending a revival type religious meetings. This bears all the hallmarks of a cult with a dominant leading male and female pastors. It seems at first that Pablo will settle into his gay life. But the family are efforts to ‘rescue him’. The cult, clearly homophobic, actually has rituals to cleanse such sinners. And we see Pablo sent [more or less willingly] to a rehabilitation centre. This is a really oppressive set-up. There is religion, a sort of secular confession, group therapy and more masochistic actions. At one point we see Pablo receive an injection into his testicles.
Rather to my surprise this actually works and the film ends with Pablo, his own family and the relatives of himself and his wife, all singing, waving hands, and heavily involved in a cult ceremony.
For me there was definitely an overdose of religion in this film. And there is little sense of the theology of the cult. The cult espouses fairly reactionary values and is extremely hierarchical. The congregations seem to be required to sing, shout, wave their hands and adulate their pastors.
The film intends a critical view of all these religious practices. The last shot of the film shows a young woman, Luisa, looking at the compliant Pablo. She is a servant in the family household but also one of the rare members who sympathises with Pablo’s situation. But I would have liked more distance throughout the film; some idea of what the cult actually stood for; and a sense of where this faction fits into the wider urban society. I would have engaged more with the film if the critical stance was more explicit.
The style of the film emphasises the intensity of the cult and of the relationships among members. Most of the film is shot in a shallow focus and with extensive use of close-ups and large close-ups.The feel of this is stronger as the film uses the widescreen of Panavision in 2.39:1. I think it is this close almost subjective feel that inhibits the sense of the critical. It is also in colour and the digital version I saw had English sub-titles.
Overall the cast and the technical work are good. I am possibly less able than some to sit through a lot of religion. I have thought that last year had an extra large slice of religion, including two films about Jehovah Witnesses. These cult members in Guatemala make them look rather limp.
The film is written and directed by Jayro Bustamante. I also noted that the actor playing Pablo has carried over his name. I incline to think that the intensity of the film is based on actual experience by someone involved in its production. The director studied in Paris and his first film at home was Ixcanul (2015), the title won a prize at the 2017 Berlinale. He has founded his own production company, and, interestingly, Guatemala City’s first cinema dedicated to independent film.
This title has been supported by European funding and Memento Films were involved. So a British release is possible and it is a powerful drama to watch.