Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Here and There - Antonio Méndez Esparza

Here and There (Aquí y Allá) (Antonio Méndez Esparza — USA/Mexico/Spain) 110 minutes

There are plenty of films about immigration but far fewer take emigration as their subject matter. Much of this has, of course, to do with the economic imbalance between countries of origin and destination (though there are net-emigration countries, such as Mexico and India, that have strong film industries). In richer English-speaking countries, ignorance of the phenomenon is such that the words ‘immigration’ and ‘emigration’ have become interchangeable in the minds of many. Ireland, which has recently seen a resurgence in large-scale emigration, is an exception, though it too has produced few films on the subject (though it does loom heavily in the greatest Irish stage play of the last 70 years, Philadelphia, Here I Come). Quite why there is relatively little cinematic interest in emigration is uncertain — you might say it is too depressing (as it is viewed in, say, Ireland and Portugal) but in many poorer countries it is seen as an opportunity, something people bankrupt themselves to accomplish. Perhaps people in those countries just see it as just too mundane, too ordinary a subject to merit wider interest.

 This is probably why it took a Spaniard — the first-time director Antonio Méndez Esparza — to direct this charming drama about a Mexican who returns to his village in the state of Guerrero after a second spell living in New York. The returned emigrant, Pedro (played by a real-life one, Pedro de los Santos) finds his two daughters approaching adolescence and grown distant from him in his absence; when he tries to sing songs on his guitar in front of them, he is surprisingly shy and they treat him as a likeable but goofy stranger. Pedro picks up casual work in the fields and on building sites but his main plan is to earn a living with a new band, called The Copa Kings, for hire for weddings, village fiestas and so on. Financial pressures soon begin to pinch though, as Pedro’s pregnant wife Helena is forced to give birth by a very complicated Caesarean. The medication for the mother and child eats up his savings and Pedro is left facing the possibility of another trip back north. In a subplot that is just about touched upon, a local teenager approaches Pedro for help in getting across the border, while attempting to convince his own girlfriend to make the crossing too.  

 Here and There is a subtle low-key drama in which the absence of the other life (the ‘there’) bears down inexorably on the characters. Pedro is a model of calm and patience, but also a man whose years away are beginning to wear on his relationship to both his family and his native village. The real-life Pedro was an immigrant whom Esparza befriended while the latter was studying film in New York; the Spaniard clearly saw something in Pedro’s back-story that might have been of little interest to a Mexican or American filmmaker, each of them focussed entirely on a US-anchored immigration. Esparza films with a clear eye and the little glimpses of life are gently but candidly observed.

Though the film is shot and edited in what might be known as the International Arthouse Style — a string of long, static takes; all the vital visual information shunting off-centre to the edge of the frame — it is his simple filming of the quiet interaction between the family (amateur actors all) where Esparza really sets his film apart from other first-time directors. He has been amply rewarded for his adventurousness and sensitivity, garnering a slew of international awards, including the Critics’ Week prize at Cannes last year, a just reward for a gentle, unassuming, little gem.