By Roger Costa
There are two decisive moments in Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante’s sophomore project, and they occur during the tremors of the title, as the ground shakes, taking its inhabitants by fear and desperation. But even before the earthquake, a wealthy, conservative and Evangelical family is abruptly shocked, as Pablo announces he’s leaving wife, children, traditions and privilege, to go and live with a sudden gay affair. In both situations, the earthquake appears as an alert from the Creator, a central character in the story, pushing the players to their limits, as proofs of faith and integrity. It also punctuates the human dependence towards the Almighty, and His inescapable will: the shakes remind everyone of their fragility and need, but also of their individual value, as they see themselves without an exit during the tremors, but somehow finding strength and determination after surviving it.
In the same context, it represents the disturbed emotions in the surface of the family, struggling and unified to solve the matter and revert the situation, bringing Pablo back to his manhood, his routine, social and religious practices. Stupendously shot with astonishing angles seen from above Pablo’s shoulders, and blurry, grey tones indicating the melancholy and sorrow in the narrative, Bustamente once again explores another element of Nature in contrast with human desire (he did so in his debut, “Ixcanul”, where a girl was connected to a Volcano), composing unique, detailed, ritualistic and deeply profound portraits of such condition. Though sometimes there are signs of criticism towards impositions against one’s choice of sexuality and some extreme religious practices (the crowd of followers in the church and the money collecting; the “gay-curing” humiliating program) the film neither condemns or justifies anyone’s actions and decisions. It brilliantly serves as a silent witness, a neutral force, perhaps the fragments of the tremors only compassionately observing its characters’ battles.
Bustamante crafts an astonishing and highly emotional multiple characters-study, mainly focused on Pablo’s divided conflicts between gay affair and family, as well as faith and secularism, but he also digs up every member of the family’s with accurate results: the perplexity and bravery of the wife, and her untiring efforts to rescue her husband; the shame on his siblings; the collapsing and disappointment of his parents; the sense of abandon and guilty expressed on the children; and the insecurity and disorientation of the servants, especially Rosa, the maid. He also presents without any judgment, the divergences between the gay lover’s ideas (“we are not sinners”) and the church’s leaders’ therapeutic beliefs (the promise of restoration).
Guatemala’s official entry for the 2020 Oscars, “Temblores” depicts timely issues with an enigmatic and humble aesthetic. Extracting convincing, top-notch performances from the entire cast, it could possibly earn the luminous first-time actress Diane Bathen a nomination on the Supporting Actress race, for her heartbreaking, fiercely turn as the wife. Juan Pablo Olyslager, who plays the protagonist, builds up his character with mysterious guilty and vulnerability, exceeding in ambiguity throughout his identity crisis. He was named Best Actor at L.A. Outfest, while director Bustamante won the Best Narrative Award at NYC’s NewFest 2019.
It’s an accomplished, thought-provoking observation on how a conservative family reacts to a moral dilemma, the sexual dogmas still haunting Latin American society, religious intolerance and manipulation, and the challenges of being openly gay in a hypocritical world. Capturing everyone’s reasons with candid eyes (hard not to feel compassion for the mother’s, the wife’s, Pablo’s and even his lover’s justifications), and allowing destiny and decision to find a solution, it showcases Bustamante’s unique ability to unveil traumatized emotions, creating a sensual, stirring and utterly complex family drama.
(Film Movement. 11/29. Quad Cinemas NYC.)