From the lofty American vantage point, Mexico's new wave filmmakers have materialized like magic, the unexpected fruit of a renaissance that even many cinematically alert Yanquis hardly took the trouble to notice. Meanwhile, these new directors have fashioned a vivid style that combines, in various proportions, Latin American literary experimentation, native street smarts, some secondhand Hollywood brassiness, and sly mysticism. The raw urban drama of Amores Perros and the steamy sensuality of Y Tu Mamá También were enough to signal some murky intrigue building a mile from the beach. Now the Mexican new wave is producing major breakers with stunning regularity.
Witness Antonio Serrano's Lucía, Lucía, a multilayered drama of personal identity enclosed in the conventions of a thriller. Adapted from Spanish novelist Rosa Montero's La Hija del Caníbal (The Daughter of the Cannibal), this piquant examination of friendship, love, and self-determination has been transplanted from Spain to Mexico (with no reported complaints from the author), where it's been thoroughly immersed in public and private anxieties of a country grappling with a new century, new political leadership, and a changing economy. To say Mexico has the jitters is to understate the case, and its brave new filmmakers have surely picked up on the vibe.
The eponymous heroine of Lucía, Lucía is a writer of children's books -- trifles about cute ducks, mostly -- who's settled for convention and stifled whatever greater ambitions she had. But when Lucía's husband of 12 years, Ramon (José Elías Moreno), suddenly vanishes at the Mexico City airport as the couple is about to board a vacation plane for Rio, her life is quickly turned upside down, along with her entire perceptual apparatus, yearnings, and sense of self.
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This is not the most original character development on the planet. The woman who finds her true self in the fires of trauma comes straight out of Playwriting 101. But for the most part, writer-director Serrano (Sex, Shame and Tears) turns Lucía's quest into high-spirited fun as often as it seems to be solemn business, and that gives Lucía, Lucía the comic tilt that keeps us watching. It doesn't hurt a thing that Lucía is portrayed by the sublime Argentine-born actress Cecilia Roth, who's made a big name for herself in five films by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, including All About My Mother.
When the sheltered wife and writer must take on the role of amateur detective (Where is Ramon? Is he victim or perpetrator?), she gets help from a pair of unlikely assistants. Her downstairs neighbor Félix (Carlos Álvarez Novoa) looks like a pleasant codger with a gray beard and a doddering manner, but he's got a secret history involving the Spanish Civil War, Fidel Castro, and Dutch gun smugglers. Not a bad hombre to have on the team, it turns out. Somehow, Lucía and Félix also hook up with a fresh-faced young musician named Adrián (Mexican soap opera favorite Kuno Becker), who has a thing for the older woman and who completes a human triangle that comes to be concerned with big ideas like loss and human reinvention. Along the way, Serrano takes us on a whirlwind tour of drug lords' gaudy dens, corrupt government offices, network TV studios, and shadowy back alleys. Has Ramon, a bureaucrat in the Mexican treasury department, been kidnapped by leftist revolutionaries? Has he been embezzling from his employer? In the end, the answers to those questions and the surface fireworks of the hyperactive plot prove to be less important than Lucía's transformation from drone to emotional adventurer.
It will come as no surprise to literary types, especially those conversant with the intriguing tangles of Latin American meta-fiction, that much of what we see on the screen -- a brutal shooting, say, or the hijacking of a suitcase stuffed with 20 million pesos -- turns out to be not "reality" but the machinations of a writer trying out assorted themes and dramatic twists and character motivations in her fevered imagination. In the beginning, Lucía tells us straight out in the voice-over that she's a "liar" (read: emerging fictioneer); the delicious irony is that through her experiments, she comes to discover the truth about herself while casting off the artifice.
Lucía, Lucía is labored in places because metaphysical scaffolding tends to inhibit narrative. But Serrano keeps the wit coming, and another richly nuanced performance from the lovely redheaded Roth keeps us always focused on the real mystery of the piece -- whether this appealing woman will find a way to find herself. Lucía, Lucía may not represent the glorious heaving crest of the Mexican new wave, but its substance and high ambitions, salted with humor, make for a rewarding two hours in the dark.