'Juntos' plays YBCA's series Mexico Rising: The Films of Nicolás Pereda.

Where Are their Stories?

Johnny Ray Huston October 17, 2011

Mexican Slow School wunderkind Nicolás Pereda is as different from as he is similar to Carlos Reygadas—and any attempt to locate him in relation to other filmmakers tends to emphasize his distinctiveness.

Weary and wary cinephiles hold out hope, or at least take note: Not yet 30, Nicolás Pereda of Mexico—the subject of a traveling series that touches down at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from October 13 to October 27—has forged a strongly unified yet steadily metamorphosing body of work in less than five years. Working with a small group of actors whose character's names largely remain the same from movie to movie while accumulating personality, Pereda has made some fine films. The evidence to date suggests the best is yet come.

That said, Pereda isn't an iconoclast, yet. His first two efforts in particular belong squarely within the contemporary Slow School (or what, in 2008, I first deemed “somnambulist cinema”), that current international legion of feature films and filmmakers whose static and elliptical narratives allow room for everything from boredom to meditation to imagination on the part of a viewer. While many contemporary directors view discussion of their peers and influences as at best a reason to be suspicious and at worst a mug's game, it’s relatively safe to assume that in addition to appreciating Jean-Luc Godard, Pereda has seen the work of Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and maybe Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

A single painterly shot of an elderly character with a walker entering a shadowy doorway in Pereda's Perpetuum Mobile (2010) brings to mind the hobbling theatre worker of Tsai's 2003 meta-movie Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and the comedic apartment waterworks of Juntos (2009) overtly invoke Tsai’s 1997 and 1998 movies The River and The Hole. In turn, the soldierly or spiritual forest forays of Juntos, Perpetuum Mobile, and Pereda’s most recent film, Summer of Goliath (2010) are reminiscent of Weerasethakul, though the Mexican countryside and what it connotes is distinct. Pereda’s people stumble between the trees and immerse themselves in rivers to grapple with loss when family life has gone to the dogs—or gone with them.

In a variation of such partnerships as Tsai’s longtime bond with lead actor Lee Kang-sheng, Gabino Rodríguez is at the center of most of Pereda’s films to date. He possesses a naturally striking screen presence, with features that teeter from homely into beautiful. His deep set eyes with dark circles around them and pronounced jaw—jutting out further when uncomfortable—suggest a sexy young Mexican Boris Karloff. In Where Are their Stories? (2007), Pereda’s camera shakily trails ten feet behind Rodriguez like an obedient dog as he walks. This recurrent point of view emphasizes the carless and far from careless physicality of a farm boy's journey into the city, and signals in plain terms that the movie's sympathies are with him.

Pereda's other chief actor is Teresa Sánchez. From Where Are their Stories? through Summer of Goliath, Sánchez is cast as Rodríguez's mother, named Teresa, but while her hefty physique remains the same, her posture and demeanor range tremendously. In Where Are their Stories?, she’s a passive near-mute maid with sorrowfully dumbfounded eyes and slouched, depressive posture. In Perpetuum Mobile, hair shorn boyishly, she’s a happily ornery woman who, disappointed with her son's and mother's layabout free-spiritedness, has transferred her affection onto her pets to an almost absurd degree. Just one of the enigmatic prizes at the core of Pereda's cinema is the idea that these Teresas might all be the same woman, captured at different places and points in time.

A noticeably detached yet critical view of human economy is present throughout Pereda's work. From its title to its country-mouse-in-the-city theme, Where Are their Stories? is the most studious of his films. There, greed overtakes members of a rural family, while a rich couple think they've earned the right to initiate sexual slavery. (Worse yet, they succeed.) As seen through Alejandro Coronado's cinematography, the rich couple's expensively decorated apartment is less attractive than a grandmother's leaking shack, the patterns of her blankets and loosely hung window drapery lovelier than their constipated arrangements of art on white walls. (The husband in the rich house couldn't be less comfortable in his own body.)

In Juntos and Perpetuum Mobile, Pereda's look at contested ownership of land and objects shifts to domestic comedy terrain. Juntos finds Gabino (Rodríguez) and his roommates embracing the lazy romantic squalor of young adulthood with a mixture of amusement and annoyance, toasting marshmallows over a flaming can in the kitchen, and approaching their apartment’s array of broken appliances with various hare-brained schemes. In Perpetuum Mobile, Gabino and his friend Paco (Francisco Barreiro) are hustlers in the moving business who receive karmic comeuppance. Over the course of their work, human belongings begin to seem like the materials in a futile shell game. The goods they carry from one random place to another end up containing a bitter irony.

Where does Pereda fit within contemporary Mexican cinema? He’s as different from as he is similar to Carlos Reygadas, and any attempt to locate him in relation to other filmmakers tends to emphasize his distinctiveness. The domestic comedy of Juntos is closer to the Jim Jarmusch-influenced two films generated from the partnership of Uruguay's Juan-Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, 2001’s 25 Watts and 2004’s Whisky. While Fernando Eimbcke's 2005 comedy Duck Season also placed Jarmusch-like or -lite gambits in a Mexico City high-rise, Pereda isn’t as prone to whimsy. Undercurrents of pain and a sense of loss run throughout his work.

Likewise, to leave Pereda's work pinned within the realm of contemporary Slow or Somnambulant cinema or comparisons to its star names is ultimately a disservice, because his vision is blooming in a manner that is traveling outside of that sometimes too-cool realm. Never outstaying his welcome, with films that usually clock in at less than 75 minutes, he’s making his own time. Responding to the cadences of his familiar ensemble of actors, his assuredly relaxed approach extends beyond the Slow Club to join a rich tradition of vanguard directors ranging from Godard to John Cassavetes. (Like Cassavetes, Pereda is up for two-character scenes that verge on vivid skits in terms of banter, such as an extended, inspiredly improvised conversation next to a broken fridge in Juntos, or a hilarious scene of memorization in Summer of Goliath.) The use of the word familiar in relation to Pereda's ensemble of actors extends to an exploration of family and what it means, both in terms of myriad failures—uncle figures are a particular target of disdain—and potential.

This potential takes on the form of fable in Summer of Goliath, which is also Pereda’s most stylish and enigmatic work to date, if not his most successful. (On initial viewing, I prefer Juntos and Perpetuum Mobile.) The film’s title character is introduced and in turn described through a series of interviews that call to mind Weerasethakul’s exquisite corpse version of storytelling in 2000's Mysterious Object at Noon, revealing how a single real-life tale or contemporary myth can be viewed and recast an infinite number of times. In fact, Pereda has already proven exactly that in his earlier works, through the permutations of Rodriguez’s and Sanchez's characters. Where are their stories? In Pereda’s films, and those stories are continuing to grow.

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