A film review of ABEL and interview with the film's director and co-writer DIEGO LUNA by Timothy E. RAW
The painfully cute conceit of a nine-year-old boy taking on the paternal responsibility of an absentee father is the type of setup that necessitates a sure hand. Going into the screening, my jaded imaginings were of a children's fable undone by clumsily earnest fairytale nonsense, or the whimsically deranged, whack-job callisthenics of Tim Burton. Surprising then that the assured vision from behind the camera is courtesy of actor-turned director Diego Luna, who in his feature debut exhibits a command of tone that belies his inexperience. Showing that he knows what he's doing and how to get it done, Luna keeps a tight reign on the fantasy elements, telling his story with the same subdued surrealism that typifies the masterpieces of fellow countryman Luis Buñuel.*
In 2001, Luna, the boyish star of Y Tu Mamá También/And Your Mother Too was launched into stardom along with co-star and childhood friend Gael Garcia Bernal, before pursing an uneven and unpredictable Hollywood career. Where Bernal has had to dig beneath his heartthrob looks with a series of tortured performances plumbing the deepest depths of dangerous desires, Luna's not so self-serious onscreen persona has always made him the more naturalistic performer of the two, and it's this quality that marks his turn in the director's chair, having crafted a curioso devoid of the sensationalistic lunacy all too common to films dealing with the splintered psyches of pint-sized protagonists.
After having spent two years in a psychiatric ward, Abel's struggling single mother of three, Cecilia (Karina Gidi), returns her son to the ramshackle family home in middle-of-nowhere-Mexico for a trial period, at risk of losing him for an indefinite stay in a children's hospital. Abel's father is long gone, supposedly working on behalf of the family in the US, but has instead neglected that responsibility and started another family in a nearby town. When we first meet Abel (the indelible Christopher Ruiz-Esparza), he's being released from the ward, greeting his newly earned freedom with eerie silence. It's left to shots of Cecilia's concern that her little boy is hanging on by a thread and might relapse before they even make it home, and cinematographer Patrick Murguia's glowingly gritty hues of brown and yellow to suffuse the frame with an inherent anxiety, which foretells the knife-edge on which Cecilia will put her family after she insists they indulge Abel and play along with his delusional belief that he is in fact the man of the house.
After being home for only a few days, Abel's vow of silence is broken; a psychological fracture triggered by an old wedding photo of his parents that he finds buried out back in shed. With that, Abel takes on the mantle of patriarch; his skewered handle on his fatherly obligations both charming (Abel advising his brother about his homework and chiding him with the certainty of a man who's not set foot in the classroom for years) and unsettling (an attempt at physical intimacy with his own mother). Most of these episodes revolve around and return to breakfast table tableaux, in which we see Abel bossing his mother around the kitchen as if she were his wife. He is stern and no-nonsense with his little brother and teenage sister to the point where brother Paul genuinely begins to believe the boy only a few years his senior is his new father. Everyone, including the local doctor and eventually the returning father Anselmo (Jose-Maria Yazpik) are made to play along with achingly awkward results. Returning with broken second-hand and possibly stolen toys for his children, Anselmo is coerced by his wife into pretending to be Abel's cousin, much to his bemusement and the audience's amusement.
Luna and co-writer Augusto Mendoza consistently lace the humour with underlying tension; a moment of high conflict occurs when Abel emasculates Anselmo by taking his watch instead of the toy he is offered. It's not by accident that Abel is seen numerous times, gorging on the rugged authoritative machismo of old cowboy flicks on the television, a pushing-and-shoving dynamic that informs the relationship with his father. Gleaming his examples of male authority from a vision of masculinity that typically precludes females directly influences the way Abel interrogates his sister Selena's new boyfriend, viewing him less as someone Selena ought to be protected by and from (after all, what can Abel know about such fatherly anxieties at his age?) and more as a challenge to his male dominance in the household. Clearly though, he's not the only one in the house not acting his age; that Anselmo is so willing to go along with his son's childish role play, speaks to the infantilization of a generation of Mexican men working across the boarder away from their families. Like cowboys, they come and go like the wind, occasionally galloping into town and are gone just as fast, without properly acknowledging the women they leave behind; not having earned the real understanding of manhood that comes with being a participant father and head of a household.
Admittedly, I feel like I'm reaching with this sweeping observation on theme as the script often struggles to make these intentions clear in the interests of not wanting to spell everything out. Being so fully subjective from a child's point of view is an impasse that doesn't enable Luna to draw significant connections between his central narrative and the implications of real-life social context. The one time we break completely away from Abel's point of view and are placed firmly in the adult world for the first time is a perplexing scene. On the one hand, it was for me the film's highpoint; watching Anselmo and the doctor discussing family dysfunction at the local watering hole, I was instantly drawn in, to an impeccably acted scene of a man admitting his shortcomings as a father. It's a shame then that this less natural outgrowth of the story feels like meddling excess, shoehorned in to give the film a false impression of expansiveness, a smokescreen aimed at obscuring the film's narrative slimness and occasional psychological shallowness at not having previously given voice to these supporting players.
Unmistakably, you get the definite sense of the scene's import as something Luna is trying to address as a filmmaker, but probing adult issues singularly through a child's eyes only results in an emancipated effort of grabbling with them. Understandably, the director is overly cautious in some aspects, this being his debut; not trying to pack too much in, making whatever overt subtext there is as concise as possible. Unfortunately, the very suggestion of these polemic riptides can't help but frustrate, downplayed to the point of meaningless, which only serves to remind of the film's within-four-walls insularity and rendering much of the proceedings inconsequential, no matter the vivid attention to detail. Though it is with the details that Luna really announces his skills as a stylist, displaying a visual flair that is never anything less than subtly refined: lights blinking on and off in the background and Abel spinning round and round in circles whenever the fortifications of his delusion are threatened, are subtle indicators of the disconnect between Abel the nine-year-old and the man he is trying so desperately to become. Like an off-course satellite, this is a boy literally spinning out of his own orbit. In a restricted number of locales which draw attention to the particulars of performance, all these touches could have very quickly read as one-dimensional peculiarity, but it's because Luna adopts such an unforced approach, there's no need for visual signposting and he wisely lets his actors' performances breathe. The abiding impression is always one of oddball authenticity, which never crosses the line into self-aware quirk.
More nuanced than your average family-in-crisis drama, Diego Luna's precisely observed Abel at times can't quite shake the feeling of a padded-out short film, but make no mistake about it, this is clearly the work of an already formidable triple threat director who has a gift for working with children, using visuals to enforce the narrative and an exceptional sense of how to go about creating an unpinable mood. Limited in scope but not ambition, Abel is a film worthy of standing out amongst the current crop of January Oscar bait and deserving of finding an audience before it inevitably becomes a cult hit on video. As a calling card, the film does just that, marking Diego Luna out as a director to watch. With a second effort (again co-scripted By Augusto Mendoza) already underway, expect to soon see the day where Diego Luna is spoken of as a director first, actor second.
Video interview: DIEGO LUNA
This exclusive interview was conducted for DVD Outsider by Timothy E. RAW in the basement bar
of the Curzon Soho Cinema London – hence the lighting, decor and background noise – at the
UK premiere of his directorial feature debut Abel, which went on release at selected cinemas on Friday 7th January 2011, courtesy of Network Releasing. Our sincere thanks to Maxim McDonald from Network for setting this interview up, and to Diego himself for his time and good humour.
* Although born in Spain, in 1949 Buñuel relinquished his Spanish passport and became a Mexican citizen, which he remained until his death in Mexico City in 1983.