After the accolades earned for Chronic – winner of Cannes best screenplay award last year – Michel Franco is currently busy promoting a film he co-directed with his sister Victoria, which is finally being released in Mexico: A Los Ojos. Presented at the 2013 Morelia Film Festival, A Los Ojos seems to follow the path Franco had undertaken with his first great international success and 2012 Cannes Caméra d’Or winner, Después de Lucia.
Once again, the 37-year old Mexican director draws from a widespread social malaise to conjure up a moving and crude depiction of contemporary Mexico. If bullying had been the catalyst of Después de Lucia’s drama, here the camera focuses on another, equally terrifying plague: organ trafficking.
Michel and Victoria Franco guide us through the lives of Mónica, a single mother working for a foundation helping street kids, her only child Omar, affected by a degenerative eye disease, and Benjamin, a homeless and drug addict teenager whom Mónica seeks to rescue from the streets.
Mónica is dedicated and thoroughly committed to her patients, at times even to the detriment of her own safety. Those fluent with Franco’s filmography may recognise the zealous, almost excessive dedication that would characterise Tim Roth’s character in Chronic. But Mónica’s care only goes up to a point, and that is when her son’s disease worsens and forces her to take a decision that will change their lives forever.
The Francos’ directing style is sober and minimalistic, so much so that at times the film feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction. And indeed it is, or at least partly so, for while Michel worked on the story’s fictitious elements, his sister Victoria worked closely with the street kids who turned into the drama’s protagonists, in order to focus on the reality the film sought to address. The camera stands still for most of the film, as if camouflaged in between the furniture or the slums’ debris, and the lens lingers on the scene even after the characters have gone out of frame.
The blurring of fiction and reality is a purposeful (and remarkably effective) move. The merging of the two styles manages to paint Benjamin’s universe as a crude and credible wasteland, populated by kids who simply can’t get over their past and are condemned to endlessly try to escape it – to no avail. It is telling that when Benjamin and Omar’s sight begins to deteriorate and the doctors try to cure the two, only Omar begins to show any progress. Benjamin will never truly “see” a life away from the streets.
A Los Ojos does not follow the same brutal rhythm of Después de Lucia, nor is the terrifying truth underpinning the plot as explicit as it is in other works by Franco. But if the drama develops more slowly, it does so in a way that is no less haunting. The combination of fiction and realism which permeates A Los Ojos makes it stand out as a powerful and moving cry against one of Mexico’s enduring malaises. The overarching question one is left with is not whether the two kids will ever be able to see again, but whether society will stop turning a blind eye on its horrific plagues.