Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the Mexican-Argentinian film Robe of Gems by Natalia López Gallardo.
Natalia López Gallardo has seemingly done the impossible; creating an arthouse film about the inability to act that looks as passionate and relevant (but also morally static) and a topic that sadly needs no introduction.
'Robe of Gems' seemingly refers to a Buddhist parable where poor people live their normal course of life without knowing that a small gem was sewn in their robe all the time by the rich and the enlightened. A bitter tragedy of sorts, and it suits the film.
In an always memorable shot composition (including the quietly illuminated first shot and the terrifying slow-mo last shot), Gallardo (in her feature film debut) presents the stories of three Mexican women in unison in a rural Mexican town. Everything there goes as languid and frightening, starting from Isabel (Nailea Norvind): estranged from her husband, she pays more attention to her housekeeper Maria (Antonia Olivares) and the disappearance of her sister. If only Isabel could do something, her life would have a new meaning. On the other side of the spectrum, Adan (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño), the son of the local police chief Torta (Aida Roa) is involved -and very coolly so- in the kidnapping affairs of the local gang, while his mother is the last standing honest officer in the local police station. (Her superior is only interested in the sauce to accompany her burgers).
This whole material could make a breathtaking thriller, yet Gallardo, coming from her collaboration with Carlos Reygadas) is not interested in an anguished drama, but rather in impressionistic, state-of-the-art desperation. She weaves her stories by editing which is both fragmented and then again sewn up at the last minute -as if to warn us that the invisible thread between her three characters is indeed there, but we need to try hard to find it.
The slowness of action, but accompanied by a depth of feelings (reflected in the always variant environment which never rests). Both three women need to navigate the path between involvement and personal loss, and different classes here seem to converge in their appreciation of a society where the shady males and their dumb followers rule over real people with needs. (Older men are described as boring, incapable and some of them glued to their new TV set). Characters escape the shot-reverse shot gimmick to tell their own story to the audience, sometimes as if on a monologue, leaving the audience to get empathy. Robe of Gems manages not only to be empathetic, but also a deeply unsettling work, which simply won't leave the viewer to rest to an assured position outside the frame; it almost parades the inability to act and correct things, and it is a deep punch on the viewer who would ask for redemption.
A really potent work, which knows how to explore its cinematography and editing to the maximum advantage, Robe of Gems is both mundane and shocking in its simplicity -and a gem to carefully cherish.