TIFF ’19: Chicuarotes

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As a bus rolls through the decaying town of San Gregorio, Mexico, Cagalera (Benny Emmanuel) and Moloteco (Gabriel Carbajal) don clown makeup in an attempt to entertain riders for tips. In this gripping first scene, director Gael Garcia Bernal does a fantastic job at setting the tone as Cagalera explains that they prefer to make money in this way, as opposed to getting involved in criminal activity. Although Cagalera’s optimism is not long lived.

As the film progresses, we come to find out that Cagalera and Moloteco are not the only ones struggling. It’s clear that opportunities in San Gregorio are limited, and that the residents must do what’s necessary to survive, let alone thrive. With signs in the street promoting “United Neighbours Against Delinquency”, it’s clear that misguided youth and criminal activity are common.

Despite the overall disheartening tone of the town, we see some glimpses of hope in people like Cagalera’s mother, Tonchi (Dolores Heredia) who listens to inspirational tapes affirming that life is a beautiful opportunity, and encouraging people to “make it happen”.

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Each new character we meet throughout the film has a different struggle, ranging from sexual assault, domestic abuse, alcoholism and closeted homosexuality. These are all very intense issues on their own, but screenplay writer Augusto Mendoza piles them one on top of the other, thickening the air and effortlessly portraying the consistent struggles of the town.

Cagalera’s struggles turn into down right desperation as he gets further into trouble in an attempt to make money and leave town with the love of his life. He gets involved in some despicable actions to get what he wants and continues on a selfish path. There are moments when you feel as though you should sympathize for the protagonist but more often then not I found myself wishing he would stop. It’s an engrossing look at how people are products of their environment and, for some, it’s all they know.

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I noticed an interesting underlying theme surrounding a lot of the women in this film who confronted the men that wronged them in some way. Whether it was a past high school bully or a current abuser, these women decided that it was their time to stand up, speak their truth, and change their situations. (Even so, they were mostly done in quite unconventional ways.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t speak on Moloteco, the quiet and kindhearted young man that almost seems like he doesn’t belong. The criminal life just isn’t for him. He has an obvious conscience and is also searching for a better life. He seems like he is all alone, juxtaposing Cagalera’s larger family.

Overall, watching these different personalities navigate their environment was very though-provoking.

Chicuarotes recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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