Sunday, January 17, 2016

Arturo Ripstein's back with BLEAK STREET, an empathetic descent into the hell that is Mexico. Or Mexico for certain people, at least.

It's not that the grand old man of Mexican filmmaking, Arturo Ripstein, doesn't make many movies (the IMDB credits him with directing 58 of 'em during his 50-year career), but rather that we here in the USA get to view damn few of them. His best known is probably Deep Crimson (another telling of that Honeymoon Killers tale). His latest (and perhaps one of his best -- but how would I know, having seen so few), BLEAK STREET (La calle de la amargura), opens this week, and it might also open the door a tad wider in garnering the filmmaker a larger audience here in the USA.

Señor Ripstein, shown at left, along with his near-constant screenwriting collaborator (as well as his wife), Paz Alicia Garciadiego, have here concocted a tale said to be torn from the headlines of Mexican newspapers. It involves quite a set of characters, beginning with identical twins (midgets who double as luchador wrestling mascots), their parents, and a couple of local whores who have aged to the point that their pimp no longer wants to work with them. One whore's significant other is a cross-dressing fellow who prefers boys, while the other's, well, "business partner" is a very old woman/mother figure no longer able to care for herself, who is put out on the street daily as a beggar, and who brings home more money than does her would-be "daughter" from that meagre prostitution trade.

OK: This sounds pretty sleazy, and of course, it is. But thanks to Ripstein and Garciadiego's skills at presenting these folk honestly and empathetically, the pair manages to embrace reality while avoiding sentimentality. This is no mean feat. The approach here amounts to a kind of clear-eyed tenderness.

Stylistically, Ripstein opts for a combination of noir and neo-realism that works wonderfully in keeping our gaze focused on the proceedings, finding a kind of artful beauty in the ugliness and despair without losing its grip on how difficult are the lives depicted here. (The black-and-white cinematography comes via Alejandro Cantú, whose camera usually moves between semi-close-up and middle distance, gracefully following the participants from one awful situation to the next.)

The realistic dialog occasionally offers a choice morsel: One whore to the other, "This trade is like mange; it never ever leaves you."  And the performances, to a man and woman, are terrific, combining that neo-realism with enough theatricality to make us cognizant that we're not watching a documentary. Particularly moving and always riveting are the two whores, played by Patricia Reyes Spíndola (above, left) and Nora Velásquez (above, right, and below, left)

Weakness piles upon weakness, betrayal tops betrayal, until arrives a surprise that changes everything. The great old song we hear over the end credits is, under these circumstances, about as ironic as it comes: a vinegar-drenched love letter to a Mexico that could exit only in the minds of the deluded rich or the entirely unaware tourist.

Distributed by Leisure Time Features and running 99 minutes, the movie has its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, January 20, in New York City at Film Forum. Other playdates? I have no idea, and Leisure Time's website provides not a clue. (The company may be a waiting to see how well their film does during its two-week NYC debut.)

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