Diego Luna, best known for his acting roles in Y Tu Mama Tambien and Milk, made his filmmaking debut with the boxing documentary Chavez. His follow up feature, Abel, marks a further broadening of his career with an ambitious return to the psychological terrain of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period that lies in the borderlands between surreal absurdity and keenly observed social realism.
Traumatised by his father’s desertion, Abel has spent the last two years in a provincial hospital without speaking. There is a dispute; his doctor recommends a transfer to a specialist psychiatric hospital but Abel’s determined mother has other ideas. They reach a one sided compromise with the nine year old returning home on condition that he behaves with a degree of normality. It sounds ominous and proves to be so but in ways that we could not easily imagine.
We witness Abel roaming the run-down family home at night without supervision. He watches television until daybreak with a noticeable intensity, an intensity that seems to extend beyond a normal viewing experience. The doctor recommends a marginal increase in tablets to help him sleep; this is medical care by convenience bordering on total abdication of responsibility. There seems no likelihood of change and then, suddenly, out of the blue, Abel speaks. And once he speaks, he speaks and speaks and speaks. Great news, a breakthrough, you may think but there is a complication; Abel assumes the persona of the head of the household, the man of the house, the father of his two siblings and husband to his mother.
Standing upright and with a commanding walk that would not be out of place in a military march, Abel takes charge. The family walk on egg shells for any challenge to Abel’s authority would seemingly trigger a trauma attack. He instructs his older sister to re-write her homework, subjects her boyfriend to a relationship breaking third degree and sits at the head of the table barking his breakfast requirements. And just when it seemed that things could not get any worse, Abel’s errant father, recklessly immature and mega macho, returns without warning and drags the family into an Oedipal nightmare.
Luna directs with a lightness of touch that neatly balances the comedy and unease running throughout much of the film. Particularly well handled is a scene where, much to our horror, Abel climbs onto his mother in the middle of the night stroking her hair only for him to dismount almost immediately and produce two mock cigarettes in a innocent recreation of a hammy love scene from one of his late night TV shows. A scene that could have been deeply disturbing evolves into something gently amusing and tender that softens the harsher realities elsewhere.
Christopher Ruiz Esparza is a genuine find and discreetly allows us to glimpse something of the real child lying behind Abel’s most extreme role play/deluded behaviour. Jose Maria Yazpic is impressive playing Abel’s father regressing in the opposite direction with no shortage of childish behaviour of his own. And Karina Gidi is always convincing as the misguided but very devoted mother.
An assured debut that has much to say about the destructive nature of conventional masculinity and the patriarchal family structure.
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