Mabel (José Pecina) is a muxe (transvestite) singer who returns to her hometown of Juchitan (in Oaxaca, Southern Mexico) upon finding out that her old friend Daniela (also a muxe) was murdered. Mabel engages with Daniela grieving family, friends and the police in order to find out the circumstances that led to the tragic event, and who the real murderer is. She even visits a lover of Daniela in prison, who has been accused of killing her but consistently protests his innocence. In the meantime, she meets the gentle and caring taxi driver Modesto (Luis Alberto), and they develop a budding relationship.
The actors in the film, particularly the muxes, are very beautiful an captivating. The cinematography in the night club where the muxes sing, in the streets of the town and even on the beach is strangely dark and yet charming. Old faded photographs of the characters in their youth add to this strange mood. The cabaret soundtrack in Spanish and French is pleasant and soothing. Despite all this, the film does not enrapture the viewer, instead it often feels trite and laborious.
There are at least two problems. Firstly, the script is somewhat loose, and it does not provide Mabel with the psychological depth required for such a complex role. Much of the film’s plot is conducted by a dull voice-over. In addition, Pecina’s performance is sometimes wooden. As a result, the film lacks passion and flare. Not that every Latin film must have the clichéd dramatism of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, but at least they would seek to enamor the viewer.
The muxes in Zapotec cultures of Oaxaca (in Southern Mexico) are described as the third gender: they have a male body but wear female clothes and identify as women. They have enjoyed large social acceptance for decades, long before homosexuality was decriminalised in most Western countries. Sadly, Carmin Tropical lacks the historical context and social commentary, which would be very relevant and powerful in this context. In the film, the muxes are a fully functional part of society, but it would be good to understand how they achieved this, and whether they encountered many barriers. How can such unusual identity enjoy such universal acceptance in a Catholic country?
It is still worth watching Carmin Tropical to the end, though. The final sequence and twist – while predictable even with your eyes closed – are very elegant and powerful. It is a pity that the same cannot be said about the film as a whole.
Carmin Tropical is part of the 30th BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival, which is taking place right now. Watch the film trailer below, and find out more about the Festival by clicking here.