VIFF 2021 Review: Drunken Birds (Les oiseaux ivres)

A Mexican migrant worker in search of the woman he loves (played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is the centerpiece of the Canadian film Drunken Birds.

Drunken Birds is Canada’s official entry in the 2021 Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film. It’s a film that meshes French with Spanish and Chinese to create a film that stands out.

The story begins with a Mexican family inside an apartment in Montreal. We learn of a man who’s searching for a woman named Marlena. Flash back many years ago. Workers for an arrested drug lord in Mexico chase down a car with a burning top. They then chase a worker for the cartel by the name of Willy down. They know what he’s been doing behind the drug lord’s back the whole time and they warn him at gunpoint.

Flask forward to the present to the Becotte farm near Montreal. The boss, Richard Becotte, is the latest to run a vegetable farm of his family going back many generations. He’s fair to the Mexican migrant workers who agree to work, but strict. Show up at 5:30am or no pay for the day. There are many who are returning, but there are some new men, including Willy. Willy does his work along with the other men, but he doesn’t really care about the pay. All that matters is he finds Marlena. In fact while the men communicate on Skype or Zoom with their wives, children and other family, Willy uses his time to search for Marlena, who has gone by a pseudonym. He has a feeling Marena lives in Montreal.

Flash back to many years ago. A Chinese art studio is given orders to either make replicas of legendary paintings of painting versions of photos. One of the photos is the picture of the Mexican mob boss. Flash to months later but still in the past, police visit the house of the drug lord some time after it was raided and the boss arrested. They talk of admiration of how they brought this tyrant with many riches down. They also notice a letter from his young wife Marlena that appears to be a suicide note. Instead it was a letter Marlena concocted with the help of Willy to plan her escape. Turns out before the raid, Willy was the ‘other man’ of Marlena. Marlena’s true love. A love that had to be kept complete secret. Four years ago, the two decided to escape together, but go their separate ways after that. Willy has been searching for Marlena for four years. He’s tried places in Mexico, knowing her pseudonym. Now hes here in Montreal hoping he’ll be able to find her here once and for all.

However the Becotte family have friction of their own. Last year in their cornfield, Julie had an affair with one of the workers. Daughter Lea knows about this and she confronts her mother about this, even mentioning Richard knows about it. This is hard to deal with as now Julie is starting to take a liking to Willy as she drives him off to a place. Meanwhile Lea is becoming an adult and she rebels against her parents. She’s trying to fit in with her friends and even try her way into the Montreal night club scene. She’s willing to try anything, including drugs and prostitution. Actually racers for the Montreal Grand Prix are in town from around the world. Lea is hoping to hook up with one of the racers and make some money. Her pimp gives her a pager and puts a drug in her mouth. She does win a driver and gets taken into his hotel room, but she leaves him, and the pimp’s phone, behind. She’s on the streets and dreams of being met up with the racer in his car, but awakens to find herself beaten up by the pimp.

Willy notices a beaten Lea in tears. He takes her in his arms and tends to her. However Richard comes in and mistakes Willy as the man who beat Lea up. Willy is in pursuit and tries to run off. However in a rainy night as he is chased in by a truck back to the Becotte farm, Richard has his men and he’s ready to square off with Willy. Richard shouts spiteful things to Willy and the Mexicans, blaming them for what happens to Lea. As the men try to beat Willy up, the Mexicans defend Willy and start charging at Richard’s men. Willy is able to find his way out and hide in a cornfield. Richard tries to search, expecting Willy to come out, but to no avail. Richard soon learns he has to make peace with his family. In the end, willy didn’t stop running. He made it to Montreal for his main goal: to find Marlena. The film ends in an expected but unexpected way.

This is a unique story. It’s a story of two worlds. The world of the past in Mexico and the world of the present as part of a farm. It’s a story of a man in search of the woman he loves and the story of a family that appears falling apart. It’s a story that deals with the issue of migrant workers and how they’re treated by their bosses in Canada. At the same time, it’s a story that blends in a colorful romance. It’s like two films in one in many ways. It’s not easy to mix the two, but it’s done successfully here.

In a lot of ways, this film shows a lot of similarities between both scenarios. Here we have Willy who’s the object of the kingpin wife’s desire. It’s a desire they have to keep well-hidden or else Willy will be killed. Both have to move on after the kingpin is arrested and his mansion raided. In Canada, we have the farm-leader’s wife who falls for the migrant workers. Willy becomes one of the men she falls for. It’s a case for Willy that both world’s collide with him. He has to cope with the aftermath of the raid and the immense possibility of never seeing Marlena again. He also comes across the possible danger of Richard crossing his path if he knows that he’s one of the workers Julie falls for.

Even though Willy is the centrepiece of the story, it’s not just about Willy. It’s about the Becotte family. Julie has her affairs with some of the migrant workers. Lea is upset with what she sees and claims Richard knows. Meanwhile Lea appears she wants to establish herself as an adult and she feels that means choosing her own direction, even if it is dangerous. When you see Richard and his men attempt to square off against Willy, blaming him for what happened to Lea, you can easily get the feeling Richard knows of Julie’s affairs and feels he has to take it out on at least one Mexican worker. Before he takes it out, you could notice by the look on his face he most likely blames himself for his family’s failures.

This is an impressive work from Serbian-born Canadian director Ivan Grbovic. His films like La Chute and Romeo Onze have won acclaim at past film festivals. This film hasn’t won as much acclaim outside of it’s Oscar entry. It did however earn a Platform Prize at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). This is an impressive film that blends in modern storytelling with imagery of classic films and common Mexican dramas. What we have here is an excellent film that’s as much a joy to watch as it being a story that will keep you intrigued.

Jorge Antonio Guerrero is excellent as Willy. His performance as a man caught between his passion and always having to be on the run keeps you on the edge of your seat and hoping he succeeds in finding Marlena. Claude Legault is also very good as Richard. He does a good job of playing a man that’s supposed to be tough on the outside, but is hurting on the inside. Helene Florent is also good as the flirtatious Julie who later has to confront her wrongs. Also excellent is Marine Johnson as Lea. She does a great job of playing a teenager angry with her home life and wanting to break free, only to find herself more entrapped by her choices.

Drunken Birds is more than just a film with a story. It mixes modern drama with a social message and traditional Mexican drama to give the viewer a story that’s a delight to experience.

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Roma

Roma
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio; left) is the maid to the changing household of Sofia (Marina de Tavira; right) in Roma.

For the record, no foreign-language film has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. They’ve been nominated before but never won. Roma could just be the first. It has the story and all the other ingredients to do it.

The story begins in late 1970 as the maid Cleo is cleaning the driveway to the garage of the house she tends to. The house she tends to belongs to a couple, Sofia and Antonio, the grandmother, and their four children in the affluent Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. Cleo and Adela, both indigenous, are the two live-in maids. The parents see Cleo as their maid while the children look up to her and talk to her often. The driveway and garage is the place where the dog is left to stay while the family is gone during the day.

The driveway and garage is too small for the big car Antonio drives, frequently bumping into the sides and driving over the dog droppings. That even comes in private conversation as Antonio angrily tells Sofia about all the dog droppings on the driveway. Cleo notices that, as normally Antonio is not that angry. Antonio, a doctor, mentions to all he’s going off to a brief trip to Quebec for a conference. He returns days later, but says he will be going to Quebec for a few weeks. The children believe it, but Cleo and Sofia sense something is wrong. Cleo knows it because she saw his wedding ring in the drawer.

Life for Cleo and Adela does not always revolve around the household. Both have boyfriends: Adela has Ramon and Cleo has Fermin. One night they all decide to go to the movies together, but Cleo and Fermin sneak away to rent a room. Before they make love in the bedroom, Fermin shows Cleo the martial arts skills he learned with a shower pole. Fermin tells Cleo that this is what gave him, an orphaned boy, his will to live.

Some time later, when Cleo and Fermin are watching a movie, Cleo tells Fermin she’s pregnant. Fermin says he has to be gone for a bit, but doesn’t return. Cleo tells Sofia that she thinks she’s pregnant. Sofia takes her to the hospital Antonio works at. While waiting in the maternity ward, an earthquake happens. Cleo learns from the doctor she is pregnant.

Cleo and Sofia try to carry on with their lives despite their difficulties. Sofia takes her children, Cleo and Adela on a New Year’s trip to a hacienda owned by her Norwegian-Mexican friends. Before the party, we hear a conversation about recent tensions over the land. The celebrations begin with festivities and fun for the children. However just before midnight, a fire erupts in the forest. As everyone is trying to put the fire out, a man counts down the seconds to New Years Day 1971 and sings a Norwegian lullaby.

Back in the city, Sofia organizes a movie night with the grandmother, the four children, Cleo and Adela. As they wait in line, Cleo notices Antonio. He hasn’t left for Quebec at all. In fact he’s holding the hand of another woman. Sofia has known this all along, but she wants to conceal it from the children until the time is right. Though one son, Paco, does notice it. Sometime later, Adela tells Cleo Ramon has been able to locate Fermin attending outdoor martial arts classes. Cleo watches the class, and is even willing to participate (and does the blind-balanced exercise better than the male students). As the class ends, she confronts Fermin, but Fermin refuses to acknowledge the baby. She tells her to leave or he’ll beat her and the unborn baby.

Time passes and the baby is almost due. The grandmother takes Cleo crib shopping one day. However a student protest takes place. The protests turn brutal as police respond with clubbings. Then violence erupts as a group of youth — strongly believed to be the paramilitary group The Hawks — start shooting the protesters. The grandmother and Cleo seek refuge in a department store, but the Hawks enter and shoot a protester dead. One of the gunmen aims the gun at Cleo, but when it turns out it’s Fermin, he drops his gun and runs off.

The incident gives Cleo so much stress, she has to go into labor. Teresa rushes Cleo to the hospital in a taxicab, but the chaos of the massacre makes it next-to-impossible to get there. Once there, Antonio reassures Cleo in the delivery room to stay calm but leaves her with Teresa and other doctors. The doctors hear no heartbeat in Cleo’s womb and decide to operate. The baby is born a stillborn girl. None of the attempts to resuscitate the baby succeed.

Cleo tries to carry on her usual work and tries to live life again. One day, Sofia drives a smaller car into the garage, and with ease this time. She says she found a job of her own and she’s able to tend to the children herself. She tells the children that they are going on a brief family vacation to the beaches of Tuxpan as one last trip with the old car. Sofia invites Cleo to come along to help her cope with the loss. As they arrive, the mother tells the truth to her children. Sofia and Antonio are getting a divorce and the purpose of the trip is so Antonio can collect his belongings from the home. Before the trip ends, Cleo looks after the children as they are swimming in the ocean. However Cleo notices the waves are getting dangerously bigger. Cleo, forgetting that she can’t swim, swims out to try to save them. She succeeds in saving them and Sofia and the children are thankful for her selfless act. However Cleo confesses right there that she did not want her child to be born. The mother, the children and Cleo return to the house with less furniture than before but with a new sense of unity between Sofia and Cleo. The film ends as a conversation between Cleo and Adela begins.

The film is unique because it is semi-autobiographical of Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood. This film happens from 1970 to 1971: a time when Alfonso was nine to ten. The film Marooned, which was the film in the family movie night scene, was a film Alfonso saw as a child and may have inspired him to become a film maker. The film does give a lot of reminders of what it was like to be a child in a middle-class family in Mexico City. There are posters of Mexico 70, the World Cup Mexico had just hosted, on the walls. There’s the brother making fantasy (American) football saves, which was a time Mexico was just discovering American football.

However Alfonso’s childhood isn’t the central story behind Roma. The story is about two women and their lives around a pivotal turning point in Mexico’s history. Mexico experienced a lot of changes for the better and for the worse during that period of time, but it’s the changes within the women that were noticed most in the film. We have Cleo, an Indigenous woman who is one of the two maids, who is the main protagonist. We also have Sofia, the matriarch of the family, as the secondary protagonist. Both have their common female roles at the beginning: Cleo as the maid; Sofia as the housewife. However things change as it becomes obvious the men in their lives are doing them wrong. Antonio leaves Sofia for another woman, and Fermin abandons Cleo upon her pregnancy. The cowardliness of both men are shown in later scene as Fermin is part of the rebel group shooting protesting students and Antonio just simply puts Cleo in the hands of doctors as he leaves her behind. However both women find their strength inside as Sofia learns she can manage things, even motherhood, on her own and Cleo is able to save Sofia’s children in a situation when she thought she couldn’t.

The film is not just about the unity of two women but of unity of two women from different classes. We have Cleo, an Indigenous woman possibly from an impoverished background, who is impregnated by her boyfriend and then leaves her. We have Sofia, a Caucasian woman from a more well-to-do background, who is losing her husband slowly but surely. Both appear lost, but they later find an inner strength they never knew they had. It happens as Sofia is able to get a job and own her own car. It happens with Cleo as she saves Sofia’s children and admits her feeling toward her stillborn baby. It’s at the end where Sofia tells Cleo how she will always consider her part of her family that we see the bond of two women coming together. United in their struggles despite their class.

One unique aspect of Roma is its use of metaphors. One is the use of airplanes in the imagery and in the various poignant scenes. Another is the use of the marching band in a couple of key scenes, including the end. Another is how it was right after Cleo saves the children from giant waves that she confesses. Another is how the size of the cars in the garage are symbolic of the marriage and divorce. Another is of various scenes involving movies that tell a lot about relationships. Even the time in which it’s set, from 1970 to 1971, is considered a turning point in Mexico’s history. The marginalized were going either get nastier or protest democratically. The government and their crackdowns would only expose the police or whoever else attacked as cowards. The rich would no longer have their peace and order as the poor would seek to destroy or steal for their own gain. On top of that, women would gain more, They would achieve more freedoms over time and a sense of independence. Mexico would not be the same.

This masterpiece belongs to Alfonso Cuaron. He is the writer, director, cinematographer and co-editor with Adam Gough of this film. The film is a lot like his childhood, as he said it would be, but it’s more. It’s about the two women who find a new sense of freedom in a Mexico that was changing. He creates a masterpiece that’s as telling as Mexico and himself as it is of the characters. The lead acting went to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio and she shines. This may be her first film role ever, but she does an excellent job with her role. Interesting to know in the scene where she swims out to rescue Sofia’s children, she couldn’t swim, just like her character! Also excellent is Marina de Tavira as Sofia. A veteran actress in Mexico, she did an excellent job playing a woman in a troubled marriage who comes out stronger. The child actors who played the chilren were also excellent. I think it was Carlos Peralta as Paco who was intended to be the representation of Cuaron.

The unique thing about Roma is that this is a film most shown on NetFlix. It was screen in theatres beforehand so it does qualify for Oscar eligibility. However with it being on NetFlix, very few theatres have shown it on the big screen and there are no official box office statistics as of yet. The VanCity theatre in Vancouver was the only theatre in Greater Vancouver that screened Roma on the big screen. I had the luxury of seeing it on the big screen just days after Christmas. Those who just see it on NetFlix are missing out on an amazing experience. It is 100 times better seeing it in a movie theatre. However the NetFlix factor is very unique for a film with this many Oscar nominations and a huge chance of winning Best Picture. That NetFlix factor could rewrite the game on how films, especially independent films, are shown.

Roma is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s also a film with a poignant social message as well. However it’s very picturesque to watch and an excellent experience for those lucky to see it on the big screen.