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El Águila y el Gusano

Mexican drama tries to tie a number of disparate stories about loneliness and heartbreak, in a film that's ambitious however undernourished - from the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam

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Guita Schyfter’s El Águila y el Gusano deals with heartbreak in this ambitious yet not fully realised feature, and presents the effects of devastation in a number of different ways. There’s a mother who watches her daughter fall for the charms of a man wanted by the police; there’s an art dealer who can do nothing to please his employer, despite his valiant efforts; and then there’s the small matter that Campuzano (Marcelo Alonso) has to choose work over his personal happiness.

The film stitches together a number of disparate stories, most of which involve Calixta (Dolores Heredia, who comes closest to being the film’s main character), a masseuse obsessed with “everything Chinese.” After unwittingly killing one of her patients, she vows to make amends by acting as a role model for her children, but everywhere she goes, she is reminded of her past life. Her situation isn’t helped by the arrival of Señor Bolos, a young man who digs up information about her in the hope of procuring an obscure painting he suspects is in her possession. Campuzano comforts her, and their friendship swiftly turns romantic, but his position as a political/criminal adviser puts their relationship at great risk. Everywhere the audience goes, loneliness follows, but the impact is often lessened by the inevitability of an unwanted punchline or joke of some nature.

Calixta’s comments about Chinese culture (“He promised to take me to Hong Kong..”) are more of a reflection of her character’s ignorance than any racist undertone. The same measure cannot be added to the director’s decision to kill off one of the central characters through “Chinese medicine”, an antiquated trope hat should have been binned in the 1970s. Piers Haggard’s critically-panned The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) featured a similar sub-plot.

The filmmaker struggles to bring out the best of Heredia, who spends much of the runtime in a sulk of some kind. Only once does Heredia present herself with authority, as the years of heartache finally catch-up with the twice-widowed Calixta, who exhibits her inner torture with solitary tear. Fabiana Perzabal (who portrays Güera, an elegant lady accidentally killed by Calixta at the beginning,) is also underserved by the script, and spends most of her scenes scantily dressed, the camera leering over her body with the glee of a fourteen discovering a model for the first time in his life. Out of the female leads, María Espinoza Stransky has the most refined performance, portraying Clemencia, a head-strong teen who is as repulsed with her mother as she is in need of guidance.

The male characters are better realised, and Alan Alarcón enjoys some of the film’s funniest moments as Bolos, the art dealer with a face almost as forgettable as his name (“Not Bolo; Bolos,” he repeatedly states). And then there’s Alonso, who walks the tightrope between despondency and despair, often within the same frame. Out of all the characters, Campuzano is the one most in need of redemption. He scours the earth, journeying from citadel to jungle in hope of an answer, yet whenever he approaches it, his work (or more pertinently, his engagement to it), pushes him away from pursuing something more meaningful. Alonso is reminiscent of a young Yves Montand: silent, stern, but convinced of his purpose.

Sadly, there’s too much going on for Alonso to develop his character, and what little screen time Campuzano has is often spent in the shadows of the flashier Canundas (Germán Jaramillo, who portrays one of his employers, a dimwitted patron who has more money than sense) and the verbose Calixta. When you consider that the film lasts two and a half hours, it’s genuinely odd to say that the best performance in the film still feels undernourished.

El Águila y el Gusano just premiered at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.


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