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The Box (La Caja)

Director - Lorenzo Vigas - 2021

"Dirty gem"
Abandoning his native Venezuela for Mexico, Golden Lion winner Vigas has created a fascinating story of lost families and secret histories - from the BFI London Film Festival

Having won the Golden Lion six years ago for From Afar, Lorenzo Vigas is back on the Lido with his new film The Box.

Hatzin (Hatzin Navarrete) is a orphaned teenager, who already feels at odds with the world. We first see him kicking the wall of a train toilet cubicle until the pounding on the door finally gets him to relent. It is a neat sign that some inarticulate rage burns inside the kid though, for the moment, he will take heed of the outside world. He is travelling to where a common grave has been exhumed to receive the casket purportedly containing his father’s remains. However, on the bus home he spots a man he believes to be his father. But Mario (Hernan Mendoza) denies any knowledge. Undeterred their kid returns his casket and starts stalking Mario, until begrudgingly the bearish older man takes Hatzin on as a kind of protege.

Mario’s job is to provide workers for the huge factories dotting the region. There are speeches about being at war with China, which in reality means a race to the bottom, where the workers have no rights and whoever makes too much fuss might find themselves buried in the desert, their disappearance blamed on the Narcos. Mario has an avuncular charm that takes some of the sting out of his front line role in exploitation. He hands out free coats and jokes with the new workers, but he is a man who is also ruthlessly intent on making enough money so he can get in on the factory game himself, even if it means breaking the law. Hatzin has some initial doubts but is soon in awe of the man – happy to have found a father figure to fill the void.

This is the industrial countryside. Vast empty panoramas dwarf the mega factories and warehouses that have attached themselves to the country like ticks. Inside the workers themselves are dwarfed by immense spaces and find themselves in a hostile environment of fear and intimidation, all the while being swindled out of the wages they earned. Hatzin has some initial sympathy for the works in particular a young woman who stands up for herself and who Hatzin feels the first stirring of attraction, but his allegiance has to be with Mario. Mendoza, who was superb in Michel Franco’s After Lucia, is phenomenal here. A man who has a kind of planetary presence, sucking Hatzin into his gravitational pull. He is a man who can be as needy and tender as Hatzin – his wife is expecting a baby – but his anger is not to be ignored and can turn frightening in an instant.

Ultimately, Vigas’s film, co-scripted by Paula Markovitch, suggests that the moral vacuum at the heart of capitalist exploitation makes it indistinguishable from the drug trade, destroys families and corrodes the society from within . In fact the way the drug trade is co-opted to give cover to similarly brutal methods makes this point explicitly. Fathers and mothers are killed and buried. Their children are lost in the world as apt to be perpetrators as to be victims themselves. Sergio Armstrong’s camera captures the unrelenting grandeur of the country, hinting that the film is something of a western, creating a film at once handsome as it unfolds the ugliness being done.

The Box premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival. It then shows at the BFI London Film Festival.

"Dirty gem"

By John Bleasdale - 08-09-2021

By John Bleasdale - 08-09-2021

John Bleasdale is a film critic and writer based in Italy. He has published a novel entitled Blood is on the Grass and a book of short stories as well as a number of articles and features. His work ha...

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