With its little boy lost fresh from the mental ward, Diego Luna’s fictional debut Abel is a family story, both comic and tragic. Albeit a bit bipolar.
Look Who’s Talking by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
There’s a lot riding on the prepubescent shoulders of young Christopher Ruiz-Esparza. Not only the success of Diego Luna’s feature debut Abel (following his documentary about Mexican boxer JC Chavez) but he also has to act like a middle-aged man. Like his character Abel in the film, he’s the one keeping this family together, and if the film succeeds it’s because of him. It’s a nice, simple story that treads a fine line between comedy and tragedy as Abel, after a two-year stay in a psychiatric hospital, starts to talk again. But it’s a cautious film that hides its themes of broken families and unbaked identities under a veneer of comedy and melodrama. And as we veer heedlessly towards its near-fatal conclusion, the road becomes increasingly rocky.
Diego Luna shot to fame alongside Gael Garcia Bernal in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también. More recently, the two friends starred together in Rudi y Cursi (directed by Alfonso’s brother Carlos) and together they own Canana Films, which also produced Bernal’s (poorly received) feature debut Deficit. A right little family. I guess in some ways, acting as both producer and director is a bit like Abel’s doubling as father and son; a wunderkind on too free a rein. At its heart Abel is a very Mexican story; a border country of both fathers and mothers abandoning their children in search of employment or a better life. The fact Anselmo only lasted a couple of months in the States and has since been living in another pueblo with a new family adds a note of black humour to this backwater tragedy. And tragedy it is, as his departure provides the root for Abel’s dysfunction, pushing him beyond his coping limits and into introspective withdrawal.
Released on a week’s trial, Abel comes home institutionalised. Mute and aloof, he watches his family struggle with their own lives as they pawn off furniture after TV set to keep a roof over their heads. He stares vacantly into walls and scribbles inky black holes onto his palm, Abel’s condition is bleak. It’s no wonder when Abel starts talking that mother Cecilia grasps the nettle, tentatively hopeful of recovery, even if he is pretending to be daddy. The family contorts around him, forgiving his identity-confused idiosyncrasy. They even start to enjoy it. Correcting his kids’ homework, reading the newspaper or interviewing Selene’s prospective boyfriends, Abel’s behaviour is uproarious, good clean humour deftly illuminated by Christopher Ruiz-Esparza. Until he starts shouting for breakfast or settling himself on top of Cecilia to fulfil his husbandly nighttime duties.
It’s touching but also quietly unsatisfying. With two kids at school and his mother running herself ragged to scrape a few pesos together, Abel sees the hole his father’s absence has created, a hole which needs to be filled. Can he hope to make up for Cecilia and Selene’s “failings” by mimicking old patriarchal values? Or does his desire to play daddy stem from his own long harboured need for a father? It’s unexplained where Abel gets his image of paternity – through the soundless and pictureless TVs that litter the front room or through formative memories of a once-domineering Anselmo? It may not be healthy, but it’s a delusion the family are happy to entertain. After all, he’s talking. And it’s only when Anselmo comes home to roost, forced into relinquishing his place at the head of the table, his identity in tatters, that this rocky harmony is threatened. And it won’t be long before this Mexican macho bucks.
And so, in a bathroom showdown, and with a rather clumsy camera flick, Abel’s mental stability is threatened, driven over the edge by his belligerent, resurgent father. And with no identity left to assume (other than his own) he flees the home with Paul on a last-ditch family excursion. To the swimming baths. It’s edgy, the brothers’ journey through container yards and across highways, but the swimming pool is an all-too-easy climax, a ham-fisted plot mechanic to spice up the chamber piece, reunite the family and send Abel back to the clink.
Whether he’s named Abel due to his mental illness, (a pun on both his inability to cope and his ability to mimic his father) or biblically as his brother’s keeper, leading younger sibling Paúl mistakenly into the industrial wilderness is a question that Luna never answers. Either way though, there’s no mark of Cain here. If anything, Abel’s the could-be murderer in this impoverished Edenic family, deluding himself and others into believing he’s an adult capable of both looking after himself and others. And it’s here that Abel is most compelling, delicately sketching the seemingly harmless chasm between what Abel thinks he can do and what he’s actually capable of. Whether Diego Luna is able to breach that gap remains to be seen.
Abel is released in the UK on 7th January 2011