Mexico City, mi amor

Pub date November 28, 2006
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

If you live in the city and you’ve been blessed, you’ve had the experience of meeting a lover on a favorite street corner, in an open square, or by a favorite vista or shadowy and partially hidden place. The opening scenes of Julián Hernández’s Broken Sky tap precisely into this hide-and-seek game for grown-ups — and the heightened expectations and disappointments it can create. Plaintive college student Gerardo (Miguel Ángel Hoppe) has the rare type of exaggeratedly masculine-feminine features — eyes wide and almost crossed — that are made for melodrama. As he waits over and over in different settings for the arrival of his boyfriend, Jonas (Fernando Arroyo), a variety of excited emotions flutter across his rapt face.
This dance of expectation and eventual pleasure is just one of the urban pas des deux within Hernández’s second feature. Broken Sky might very well be a four-way chain of pas de deux pieces, tracing the gradual breakup of a first love. At its very best, the movie creates something hauntingly, intuitively perceptive from these portraits of everyday urban movement. Near the end of the film, when Hernández and cinematographer Alejandro Cantú return to one such repeated pattern — Gerardo’s movement around an apartment bed that once had a magnetic force for Jonas and him but now only seems to repel them from each other — the effect is heartbreaking.
But who will have the patience to reach that moment? At nearly two and a half hours, Broken Sky would have benefited from a rigorous edit that not only reduced its run time by 40 to 60 minutes but also removed the voice-over passages that provide virtually its only dialogue. (This suggestion is from someone who can comprehend, let alone appreciate, the languid rhythms and unconfined eros of Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul — in other words, it isn’t the conservative miscomprehension of a New Times–era Village Voice.) By even occasionally imposing heavy-handed and pseudopoetic narration on the proceedings, Hernández seems to doubt his core instinct that the words of pop songs, the semiotics of T-shirts, and the looks on Gerardo’s and Jonas’s faces are — aside from a classroom lecture on Aristophanes — all that is needed to tell their story.
That’s a shame, especially because the director has an extraordinary collaborator in Cantú. Together their camerawork charts, colors, and most of all cruises Mexico City with a flamboyant fluidity equal to that of Diego Martínez Vignatti’s cinematography for Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven — another recent movie from Mexico that (along with Ricardo Benet’s News from Afar and Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season) trumps the efforts of better-known contemporaries who’ve ventured to Hollywood. Like Battle in Heaven, Broken Sky contains enough 360-degree pans to make even Brian de Palma spin-dizzy. However, compared to Reygadas’s baroque nationalist allegory (or the urbane sensuality of Night Watch, Edgardo Cozarinsky’s recent hustler’s-eye view of Buenos Aires society), its young love narrative seems trite. Strip away the potent combination of Hoppe’s puppy dog pathos and Arroyo’s pout, and the message seems to be that you should never wreck your relationship for a dude with a tacky rat-tail hairdo.
Had Hernández’s presentation remained mute save for the lyricism of ballads and Dvorak-or-disco-beat instrumental passages, Gerardo’s and Jonas’s archetypal qualities might be as convincing and layered as their embodiment of — and struggles against — the callow surfaces of contemporary gay life. That latter friction took on black-and-white overt outsider form in the director’s first full-length film (after almost a decade of shorts), 2003’s Jean Cocteau–influenced A Thousand Clouds of Peace. Shot in color, Broken Sky resides closer to gay mainstream consumerist codes, while still critiquing them via a defiant romanticism. In a sense, its extended length could be seen as a direct antithesis to the increasing length of gay porn movies in the DVD age, with each protracted chapter straining toward a skipped heartbeat instead of an orgasm.
Quoting Marguerite Duras at the outset, semisuccessfully treating a twink’s misbegotten nightclub hookup as the stuff of epic tragedy, and taking even more time than Duras might to tell a simple story (not to mention one that involves characters she would’ve found silly), Hernández can’t be accused of lacking audacity. He knows how to ravish the viewer — an excellent quality in a director who loves to choreograph love. The fact that Broken Sky’s title credit doesn’t arrive until nearly an hour into its action — or stasis — more than hints he’s influenced by Apichatpong’s revelatory Blissfully Yours, but unlike that innovative director, he’s still working, conflictedly, within the framework of contemporary gay identity and its attendant commercialism. He and João Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma; Two Drifters) are the standout moviemakers in this restrictive realm, but as of now, lacking Rodrigues’s devil-may-care imagination, Hernández will have to settle for number two — with a Bullitt T-shirt. SFBG
Dec. 1 and Dec. 3–7
Castro Theatre
429 Castro, SF
(415) 621-6120