' Cinema Romantico: CIFF Review: La Jaula De Oro

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

CIFF Review: La Jaula De Oro

It goes without saying that the border between Mexico and the U.S. can be, whether politically or narratively, divisive. To one the border might appear as a demarcation of hope, a new beginning, a second chance. To another the border might appear as a false hope, a line of trouble, where dreaming only leads to despair. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of director Diego Quemada-Diez’s marvelous film, “La Jaula De Oro”, a prize-winner at Cannes, is how gracefully it straddles both sides of this argument, refusing to pick sides or offer solutions. Rather Quemada-Diez, to quote the late great Roger Ebert, puts human beings on the screen, and asks his audience to walk a little awhile in their shoes.


Our introductory image is Juan (Brandon Lopez) tromping through his shanty Guatemalan neighborhood. It is telling because it visually encapsulates the film’s whole forthcoming journey – straight-ahead and determined, whatever may come. He and his pal Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and his girlfriend Sara (Karen Martinez), who cuts her hair, tapes her breasts, and masquerades as a boy, hop a train, intent on making the perilous 1,200 mile journey north to Mexico and ultimately the El Dorado that is Los Angeles. These repeated wide hanging shots of trains in the Central American countryside, aspiring immigrants packed body-to-body on the roofs, are stirring, evoking modern-day refugees aboard boats bound for Ellis Harbor.

Of course, it’s not so easy. The trio encounters a younger Indian whose language is hard for them to decipher (impossible for us as it purposely goes without subtitles), Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez). Juan, hotheaded, a thief of necessity, wants him to stay away. Sara and Samuel are more gracious. But Chauk seems to come as both a blessing and a curse, and his presence results in them being deported back to Guatemala. Nevertheless, they hop another train and re-strike out for points north.

A multitude of harrowing setbacks and snafus await, including a brief allusion to an event chronicled in a This American Life episode. Often these characters are willing or left without an alternative other than to place their trust in the hands of those they meet on the road. Juan may be brash, but his naivety can be jaw-dropping, and this leads them straight into trouble. Yet, what choice do they have? After all, the mythical border crossing they yearn to make would rely on them submitting themselves as drug mules. By any means necessary, right? The idea of faith in your fellow man is shattered, yet simultaneously reinforced in the way that Juan and Chauk come to find a mutual respect. Not a friendship, per se, just the recognition that shared hardships can bring.

That is one of “La Jaula De Oro’s” neatest concepts, its offering of standard setups – including one involving Sara that shall not be revealed – and then its admirable defiance to commonplace payoffs, if it even provides payoffs at all. No one is safe, and that lends the film a fierce urgency.

In spite of so much risk and tension, the characters never lose sight of their intent, clinging to the ideal of the fabled borderland. Once there, however, reality intrudes. The dream drives them forward, the dream is unmasked as an illusion, and both ideas blend together in a haunting finale showing a quiet snowfall not as the purity of a brand new start but as the burying of all facile assumptions.

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