Originally Published in Sight and Sound; London Vol. 11, Iss. 5, (May 2001): 39-40,3.
I find the process of writing in itself an interesting guide as to how I value a film. In the last year, I’ve loved Mud, Candelabra, and The Bling Ring so much that I’ve seen them half a dozen times each but still haven’t managed to write anything on them but notes to myself: I’m paralysed with appreciation; I tell myself I need to wait for the DVD release to look at films more closely, verify my opinions, discover more of their mysteries, and find the language with which to begin to account for them. And so the process gets deferred.
Other times my need to write on a film over-rides almost everything else. In the last few days I’ve been going to lots of cultural events; Alain Bennet’s People at the Birmingham Rep, Shakespeare at Stratford, David Byrne in concert, other movies; and in spite of finding them all rewarding in their own ways, I found my mind returning, almost against my will, to focus on Satyajit Ray’s The Big City. I needed to write something.
Other films feel like a waste of time to see, encourage no reflection, and writing on them doesn’t even cross my mind. Others yet, like Days of Grace, I initially thought of just putting aside as a not-too-pleasant experience but then found myself returning to at odd moments as if my unconscious was telling me something my conscious reason didn’t quite grasp.
My first impression of Days of Grace was of an interesting, almost virtuoso, if rather bewildering and somewhat unpleasant example of types of camera movement, colour and editing now made possible by new technologies. Different parts of the film are shot in different formats: 8, 16 and 35 mm; and colour is used differently in different parts of the movie; but the oversaturation it does make use of throughout a great deal of the film has only been seen in cinema relatively recently and is probably due to computerized colour grading. The movement of the camera is relentless and dizzying; simultaneously exciting and irritating; it whizzes overhead in speedy helicopter shots over Mexico City, shakes wildly as it follows characters so you almost can’t see what’s going on. The editing must have been done digitally as objects appear and disappear from walls even as the camera pans across it and would have been a very expensive special effect in another era. And I thought there was something interesting and new about a steady but clearly mechanical (non-smooth) type of tracking shot that I don’t remember seeing before.
After I decided not to write on it (why write something negative on something struggling to find an audience as is?) my mind kept returning to the phrase of Gabriel García Marquez that acts as a pre-amble to the film: ‘La vida no es lo que uno vivío, sino lo que recuerda, y cómo lo recuerda para contarla/ Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers to tell it’. So what is life according to Days of Grace, what does the film want us to remember, and how does it tell its story?
These questions were part of the problem I had with the Day of Grace because I wasn’t sure I followed it properly; and I was not alone. Phillip French writing in The Observer notes that the story ‘is difficult, at times almost impossible, to follow. At least first time around.’
The film is clearly a ‘state of the nation film’ with some similarities to Amores Perros and City of God. It is set during three World Cups, 2002, 2006 and 2010 because it’s been observed that, ‘every four years, for 30 days, crime rates go down by 30% because of the World Cup’. It tells three interconnected stories, that of a cop, a kidnap victim, and a family; there are even three versions of ‘Summertime’ so that the film becomes interconnected even on an aural level (Janis Joplin and Nina Simone I recognized: I had to search the credits to find the last which turns out to be by Scarlett Johansson). Each of these stories involves the other key phrase repeated throughout the film, something like ‘in Mexico, every single day is a fight for your life’. So what the film remembers and what it tells is this struggle; and it is significant that the only person who leaves the film’s carnage alive is a young boy who we see first as a child delinquent (Doroteo), then as an apprentice kidnapper (called Iguana and played by Kristyan Ferrer) and in the last scene of the film as a boxer, still fighting for his life, not yet knocked off like the others in the film. But for how long?
Everardo Gout, whose debut feature this is, has called Days of Grace, ‘A love letter to my country…the film comes out of my great love for the country, out of sadness and out of fear at the violence.’ In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw read this ‘love letter’ as a ‘confident well made film that ends up in a blind alley of cynicism’. I do understand where both are coming from. Part of the reason my mind kept returning to the film was because it jived with my experience of Mexico when I last visited: those who could afford to lived in gated communities with their own security firms; the city police, the District police and the national police fought with each other and also against the various gangs that were often more powerful than they; kidnapping was so rife they had a term for it ‘kindnap expres’, a short-cut to ready money to which everyone who had even a minimal paycheck and a family was vulnerable to. Mexico felt like a failed State and indeed the first time I venture unescorted, it was the police I fell victim to rather than a gangster: the police were the gangsters. The film too makes it clear that there is a thin divide between cops and gangsters in Mexico. As one of the characters says in an analogy with the World Cup, ‘we’re not arbiters, we’re players’.
What to Bradshaw is cynicism, a lack of faith and hope in people and institutions, is to Gout realism, sad and fearful but of what is not of what it once was or what the society could be again. It’s a love letter because there’s Lupe, the hero who is not only a cop, but one who is linked to Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary saint and arguably a founding father of Twentieth Century Mexican ideals. In the face of Tenoch Huerta, and in his performance, in the gesture of kissing of the figure of Zapata and the bullet he once held, one sees a Utopian ideal of that daily fight not only to survive but to make things better, to make things good; and in that ideal lies Gout’s love letter.
What my mind kept turning to, what made me want to find out a little more about the film and to write something after my initial decision not to were three things a) that I couldn’t understand the story fully: was the film too fast or was I too slow? I haven’t figured out the answer to that one yet. B) The violence: brutal, relentless, stylish. This is bound to become a cult film. And c) Tenoch Huerta’s open and suffering face in his futile attempt to make things better. I also felt that the film was akin to the work of a brilliant writer who was so enraptured by his limitless ability with the medium that he ended up writing astonishing passages but forgot what he was writing about or whom he was writing to; or put another way, Days of Grace is the work of a virtuoso director. That is where my writing on the film led me to think contra my experience of watching it.