Friday, June 04, 2010

Hola Mexico ’10: Black Sheep

In one rural Mexican community, sheep are almost as valuable as cold hard cash. They are harder to steal though. Still, that does not stop one miserable shepherd from getting ideas in Humberto Hinojosa Ozcariz’s Black Sheep (trailer here), which screened yesterday at the 2010 Hola Mexico Film Festival in New York.

In true noir fashion, Sheep is told as a flashback by a hitchhiker who has just been kicked off a trailer truck loaded with sheep. Those sheep hold a lot of meaning for him as he explains to the drowsy trucker who picks him shortly thereafter. Yet he was only a bystander, watching as the morality tale unfolded.

His story centers on Jose, a young orphan sent to live with the wealthy Don Leandro by the village priest. Never welcomed into the family, Jose lived like a servant, constantly belittled by the powerful landowner and his sadistic son Jeronimo. Making matters worse, Maria, the beautiful daughter of the local fireworks manufacturer, initially favored Jose over Jeronimo. However, as she grew-up, she gravitated towards the wealth and position of the unstable son of privilege, temporarily forgetting the sensitive young shepherd. As the abuse escalates, Jose hatches a plan to steal Don Leandro’s sheep (and hopefully Jeronimo’s girl) with the help of his faithful sidekick Kumbia.

Equal parts noir-ish thriller and naturalistic drama, Sheep is a tightly constructed film that avoids most of the pitfalls of both genres. For instance, while the Padre is corrupt to an extent, he is not without redeeming qualities. Indeed, Carlos Aragon’s performance is truly nuanced and ultimately sympathetic. Yet, the film is undeniably driven by Jose, played with restrained intensity by Christian Vasquez. He sells each twist quite well, holding our sympathies despite his occasional acts of moral expediency.

More cinematic than many gritty character-driven noirs, Sheep looks great. The hardscrabble landscape sparkles through the lens of cinematographer Kenji Katori and Hinojosa creates a vivid sense of life in the depressed and depressing provincial village. Though deeply rooted in its Mexican locale, it is hardly seems like a film to carry their Chamber of Commerce seal of approval, given its frank depictions of unchecked corruption and exploitation. Regardless, it is a thoroughly engrossing film, making it an effective representative of Mexican cinema.

Sheep might be a dark film, but it is also surprisingly satisfying. While sentiment and romanticism are in short supply, it is a nicely executed thriller for adults. Highly recommended, it screens again today (6/4) as part of this year’s Hola Mexico Film Fest at the Quad.