Sexier, drug violence makes for headlines. Ignored is the effect of financial downturn in El Norte, unemployment Stateside sending Mexicans back home, adding their joblessness to woes exacerbated by the concomitant diminished remittances. Here and There/Aquí y allá does not consider politics, border polemics, cartels or global recession but, rather, is an unshrill rumination on family, love and hope.
While studying for eight years in Manhattan, writer/director/co-producer Antonio Méndez Esparza became friends with supermarket stock boy Pedro de los Santos Juárez, with and around whom he developed the 2009 short, Time and Again/Una y otra vez, which in its turn led to this first feature-length, a North American première at the current New York Film Festival.
A first-section “The Return” balanced by an end return in another direction, the hundred-ten minutes opens beside a river bridge in Copa, Guerrero state, and after a couple brief scenes of the mountain pueblo, closes over that bridge. In between, hope and quiet joy turn to equally undemonstrative resignation to reality.
As is not unusual, non-professionals prove more than the equals of career actors, the cast capturing that docility and (sometimes frustrating for gringos) acceptance characterizing descendants of advanced but beaten Mesoamerican cultures. Patient and soundless in morning cold, Teresa López awaits husband Pedro’s (real wife and husband Teresa Ramírez Aguirre and De los Santos) return from years of hard work north of the border, and carries half the luggage up steep streets to their home.
“When you leave a place to go back,” said the director via Skype, “things are very different.” The returnee must re-introduce himself to daughters Lorena and Heidi (Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleón Vázquez, Heidi Laura Solano Espinoza), the former just shy of young womanhood and not doing homework or well in school, the latter the more outgoing, saucy, adoring little sister. The traveler’s hard-case carrier houses a Karma electric keyboard, for the pater familias dreams of fronting a local folclórico band -- “folklore,” in the sense of popular ballads and love songs, in corridos, cumbias, Dominican bachatas.
Not pushing himself on them, he earns the love and respect of these girls who have grown up without his presence and reassures his wife that she need not have worried that he enjoyed any other women in New York.
Sharing a common language, Madrileño Méndez still needed to encourage Mexican actors’ input on specifics of local details and, though “very inspired by Pedro’s life, [was until then] not aware of his amazing talent as a musician.” Copa Kings, the music group he forms, is a real one (including Pedro and brother Juan), touring the area with others, and when they play at a village fiesta, the story wisely gives just enough but not too much.
The purple keyboard also serves to cement his more difficult reconnection with “Lore,” his teaching her a few notes being a memory she cherishes. Pedro visits relatives and friends, pays a condolence visit to a widowed mother (Gloria Verdis Flores) whose immigrant son died in the U.S., recruits and rehearses the band and negotiates gigs, and the dream seems within reach. But now-pregnant Teresa begins bleeding and, at the hospital in bigger Tlapa, needs a cesarean and transfusions which must be paid for in the absence of enough blood donors. Following a nice touch of the third daughter brought home still unnamed, the girl grows to babyhood in the loving family.
Presaged by local lad Leo’s (Néstor Tepetate Medina) departure for hoped-for work in New York -- helped by Pedro’s calls to friends still there -- Pedro is forced to consider a return there himself. The music not making much money, one schoolteacher member transferred away, and drought and hard times drying up cornfield and construction labor, the man and his four females are happy together but strapped.
There is a passing sign for the Nueva Alianza party and a half-heard offscreen speech invoking Zapata for revolutionary fervor. But there is nothing political anywhere near the heart of this understated, accurate and impressive début. No complaining, no villain, no blame, just the simple facts of peon lives confronting a situation not of their making.
(Released by Torch Films; not rated by MPAA.)