The opening film of Film Fest Gent is always a strong entry that focuses on a specific, often difficult theme. That tradition will be continued this year with a film by director Teodora Ana Mihai, which takes Flemish film to a completely different level. The haunting La Civil is going international, tackling one of the most thorny issues facing Mexico today.
La Civil is fictional non-fiction
Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez) and her daughter talk over breakfast like any mother and daughter. Laura leaves for her sweetheart while her mother also starts her day. On the way by car, Cielo is cut off by a few young people. What to do cool, we think at first, until they come to her and ask if she wants to see her daughter again. She has to meet them in a cafe, a public place, where they ask 150,000 pesos (about 6400 euros) to release Laura. She is also not allowed to involve the police, or the army, who nevertheless drive around en masse in the streets. If she does, the cartel won’t shy away from killing Laura.
Cielo knocks on the door of Gustavo (Álvaro Guerrero), Laura’s father, from whom she has since been divorced. After some effort and some sacrifices, they are able to collect the money and deliver it, but Laura does not return. Desperate, Cielo takes matters into her own hands and sets out to investigate herself. In doing so, she becomes increasingly involved in the underworld of the cartels, with all the consequences that entails.
In the hands of another filmmaker, this might just be the start of a spectacular cat and mouse game that’s taking on almost superhero movie proportions. But the script by Habacuc Antonio de Rosario and Teodora Ana Mihai is not theatrical, but rather subdued as far as possible. This is clearly an ordinary mother who is treading thin ice here and really doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into. It’s also clear that they did a lot of research for this because every action Cielo takes feels thought through, and at the same time not thought through like it would be in real life. It seems contradictory but it shows how much balance there is in the script.
In addition to the search for Laura, this is also a story about a broken couple who are bonded by their daughter and then have to deal with the fact that their greatest connection factor is not there. This provides some hope during the search. We also gain an insight into the impact of the cartels on daily life. As a result, the local morgue has become one of the most distressing places. There are also a few scenes that are certainly not for the sensitive viewer. But otherwise La Civil is not a film that is simply explicit. The moments are carefully chosen.
At the same time, this story also shows the powerlessness, or would it be incompetence, of the Mexican police and army. The cartels operate without rules or conscience, often have endless resources and use all kinds of ways to control the local population. Still, you want to shake up the authorities that are supposed to help. It’s every parent or family member’s nightmare, and it’s made all too clear here.
Another reason why everything seems so realistic is the camera work. We are always close to Cielo, even when she does long stake-outs in her car. Choosing not to use a steadicam makes everything look less stylized. There are no too flashy cuts or special shots that give you a high documentary feel along with the influence of the script. Hardly any music is used, which reinforces that feeling.
In addition, there is also the central interpretation by Arcelia Ramirez. Thanks to her, Cielo goes from a terrified mother to a dogged researcher without ever getting over the top or melodramatic. The question arises how far Cielo can go to achieve her goal. Ramirez is Mexican himself so this must not have been an obvious role. The film is certainly a heavy ride, which does not end quite as you would expect. Without wanting to say too much, you can get the same feeling as with Inception: hope or despair. So , all things considered, La Civil is one of the best, most respectful and honest films on the subject you’ve ever seen.