These three films often refrain from showing those pulling the trigger and sparking violence, focusing on victims more than the stereotypical Mexican criminals of U.S. cinema. Violence here is not exploitative, instead it’s often brief and horrific.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid,” Issa López’s urban fable coated in flourishes of light horror, begins with a shellshock of a scene as Mexican children dive to the classroom floor when gunfire erupts outside, some of it piercing the windows and walls. Later, while the young protagonist Estrella (Paola Lara) walks home, she observes a bloody tarp-covered body as kids play limbo with strings of yellow security tape nearby. None of this, we sense, is abnormal for them, and in that realization López urges us to consider how Mexico’s youngest are coming of age during a dark chapter in their country’s history; “Tigers Are Not Afraid” premiered in late 2017, the first of three straight years that saw Mexico set new high-water marks for homicide rates, according to congressional research. For Estrella, violence is so prevalent that stumbling on the dead body barely causes her to flinch.
Violence is an omnipresent threat in Fernando Frías’ “I’m No Longer Here” as well—it can explode at any moment, and its characters know it. Much in the same way the orphaned kids of “Tigers Are Not Afraid” initially keep themselves to a makeshift home on a roof, this film’s gang of teenage counterculture Terkos tend to hang out high up in the concrete ribs of half-constructed Monterrey skyscrapers, out of sight from the threat of violence below that is constantly biting at the edges of the movie’s colorful tableaus. When the Terkos’ stoic leader Ulises (Daniel Garcia) later stumbles into a climactic scene of violence, it’s numbingly quick. American movies would linger on the bombastic spectacle of gunfire, but here it’s a short spit of bullets that ends as soon as we realize what’s happening. The shooters are like specters floating through the story; “I’m No Longer Here” doesn’t give them any real sense of characterization or depth as it remains focused on Ulises, whose circumstantial presence at the bloody killing will force him to flee for the U.S.
In Valadez’s “Identifying Features,” there’s practically no gunfire or explicit violence of any kind until its haunting closing minutes. Instead, we attune ourselves to the pensive thousand-yard gazes of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) as she searches for her missing son. In that search, Valadez creates the uneasy sensation that Magdalena and the viewer are constantly following the footsteps of where violence has been; the road she takes is often deserted, and it’s here that “Identifying Features” and “Tigers Are Not Afraid” share the characteristic of unfolding in settings so stark and scarred that they feel dystopian in nature. (“I’m No Longer Here” begins in a gentler place, but Monterrey will take on an eerie emptiness of its own by the movie’s end.) Magdalena is an older protagonist than Estrella or Ulises, although her age is less a signal of incapability and more a literalization of Mexican past trying to make sense of its horrific present—of a country trying to reclaim itself from its own worst tendencies.
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