Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hola Mexico: It’s Better If Gabriela Doesn’t Die

Most American films set behind the scenes of major soap operas are upbeat comedies, like Tootsie and Soapdish. Evidently, the work environment on Mexican telenovelas tends to be more neurotic, given that the humor in It’s Better If Gabriela Doesn’t Die (trailer here), the closing film of the Hola Mexico Festival, is of the distinctly black variety.

Miguel hates his work. Having once harbored serious literary ambitions, his writing muscles are atrophying as he churns out scripts for a cheesy evening soap. While he might have contempt for his day job, it makes quite an impression on Bracho, a borderline psychotic cop who happens to be a passionate fan of Miguel’s show. Mild-mannered Miguel gives little thought to trading some upcoming plot revelations to get out of Bracho’s traffic stop, offering up his plan to have arch-villainess Gabriela marry her nemesis. However, events turn deadly serious when Ana Victoria, the actress playing Gabriela, suddenly quits the show, requiring her character to be killed off.

Bracho the braggart, tries to use his presumed inside information to impress his colleagues and cronies. However, when Gabriela’s impending doom is announced, he takes it as an insult to his honor, triggering a descent into psycho-stalker madness. There is humor in Gabriela, particularly towards the end, as Abigail Jardin, the show’s reclusive mad genius of romance, returns to right the sinking ship. By and large though, it is a story of insanity fueled by the allure of fame, bearing some thematic similarities to Scorsese’s King of Comedy.

Directed by Mexican television veteran Sergio Umansky, Gabriela has a dark, disconcerting tone. Ricardo Hernández Anzola’s script has some clever touches, particularly down the stretch, but the character of Miguel seems to specialize in making poor choices designed to make his situation worse, not better. (At times, I wanted to see Tootsie’s Dorothy Michaels come out and give him a good talking to).

Gabriela Roel, as Ana Victoria, as Gabriela, gives the film’s strongest performance. She brings grace and intelligence to her portrayal of an actress coming to terms with the disappointments and indignities of her ostensibly glamorous professional career. Gabriela also boasts several great supporting performances including René Casados as Jardin, and Miguel Pizarro as a desperate extra willing to risk his life for a recurring role.

Gabriela has a lot of strong moments, but its antagonists needed to be fleshed out more. Still, Umansky shows real promise as a feature director in a film that overall was an interesting conclusion to an entertaining festival.