Directed by Hari Sama, Esto no es Berlín (This Is Not Berlin) doesn’t feel like your typical punk music-fueled coming-of-age story. The film starts with the following epigraph: “Our family hands down to us the ideas that keep us alive, as the illness that will cause our death.” The line is from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. A film about the revolution of the punk wave in 1980s Mexico City making a nod to the iconic French literary figure of the early 20th century? Yes, Sama does it, and it works.
*Warning: Spoilers ahead.*
Proust’s line takes an even more complex turn in the film. For better or for worse, your ideals get passed on from generation to generation, but just like you inherit values, you also inherit traumas. In that sense, “family” has a twofold meaning: literally, it represents the bloodline; metaphorically, it stands for your country of origin, where you live, the place you call home. Sama constructs a tale where people try to define their identity, in spite of their constricting environment. Identity equals freedom. Freedom gives meaning to life.
Inspired by Sama’s own adolescence, the autobiographical tale has slim and long-haired Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) having a hard time fitting in. Throughout the film, both the cinematography and composition help transmit that idea, and it’s incredibly evident in the opening shot. While everybody surrounds Carlos, confusion sets in as he sees a violent fight between his classmates and a rival high school. Ponce de León stands in the middle of a literal battlefield. In slow motion, we see how everyone around him winces in pain or breathes out in ecstasy as their knuckles touch another boy’s face, but Carlos doesn’t participate. He’s still… trapped in a world where boys his age exercise hyper-masculine behavior, and if you don’t partake, the film suggests there’s no room for you. Carlos knows this, but he still considers the boys his friends, because, well, he’s 17 and where else could he go?
His life at home isn’t any more promising either. He has a much younger sibling that he babysits quite often —we see Carlos feeding him multiple times— since his mother (played by a low key Marina de Tavira) self-medicates, clearly undergoing depression. As a consequence of his life at school and at home, his hunger for something more out of the ordinary reaches a boiling point.
But he has two people he can rely on. One is his uncle (played by Hari Sama himself), whom he confides in and sees as a role model because unlike everybody else in his family, he doesn’t conform to an office job or a conservative outlook on life.
The other is his best friend, curly-haired Gera (Jose Antonio Toledano), who has a more traditional family dynamic at home—a stay-at-home mother, breadwinner-gruff for a father, and a cool, rebellious sister Rita (played by Ximena Romo). Perhaps because of the stifling nature of his home, Gera also feels like he needs to find himself. Though it’s never addressed, which becomes part of the reason both Carlos and Gera are good friends: they acknowledge the void that exists within them.
The boredom that reigns their lives comes to a halt when Carlos, who’s a mechanical genius, fixes the synthesizers Rita’s band uses. As their reward —Gera tags along as the good friend he is— the band agrees to take them to the underground bar El Aztec.
Filled with young and eccentric society rejects, performance artists, intellectuals, queer, and all who embrace the subaltern, the bar puts Carlos and Gera in a trance. While drinking alcohol, they see two men kissing, patrons in a drug-fueled frenzy, and Rita’s band play, morose and angry lyrics included. Both boys see themselves in the people at El Aztec. The next day they have a conversation about going back to the bar, but Gera seems to want to go elsewhere asking Carlos if he even felt comfortable there to begin there. Clearly, Gera is trying to suppress his fondness for the bar—he is gay (as we later discover) and is afraid to explore that part of himself.
Homosexuality is front and center in the film, although nobody ever explicitly talks about it. Carlos joins Nico’s (Mauro Sanchez Navarro) exclusive circle. Owner of El Aztec and a photographer, he introduces Carlos to his friends and acquaintances, art performance collaborators, and people who refuse to put a label on all relationships and sexuality for the sake of freedom. Nico is undeniably attracted to Carlos, but the feeling isn’t exactly mutual.
Perhaps the film’s strongest showcase of its raging spirit manifests during the performance art scenes. Men and women get naked, douse paint all over themselves, write the word “Gay” on their bodies, take to the streets, and shout “gay” for everybody to hear. The protest is a direct call of action for the government to support the LGBTQ community in its worst time: the AIDS crisis. But also to make the public aware that while they go on about their lives, people lose their loved ones every day. Just like in the U.S., many gay men in Mexico died and the country —instead of caring for the ill— focused their attention on other matters, like Mexico hosting the 1986 World Cup, which plays a central part in the film.
Whether it’s a street protest, taking over a soccer game by playing a gay pornographic movie for the fans to see, or staging a fake suicide scene, the artists push the homosexuality theme front and center. Nobody in the film claims a gay identity (yes, Gera does, but not until the film’s final scene), and that’s somewhat disappointing. But it’s also the film’s forte. The acts of transgression during the art performances speak volumes. And besides, Carlos, as we later learn, isn’t gay, and neither is the director, so Sama respected the story and stuck with that he knows and that’s impressive.
Having said that, one can’t stop but wish the Carlos’ mother character was more developed. A backstory would’ve given insight into her inner conflict. Despite De Tavira’s best efforts, her character was very one-dimensional. Likewise, Rita’s role is minuscule, which is a shame because she is quite stellar every time she’s on screen.
Despite those shortcomings, the film does succeed in focusing on teenage ennui. And when that boredom evolves into adrenaline, what does a boy do? Is it ever that easy?
Carlos explained it well to his uncle: “Have you ever felt like you want something, but there’s something inside you that won’t let you do it? Like a voice that doesn’t shut up and it’s not even yours.” What’s that something inside you? How do you control it? How do you make it disappear? In Esto No Es Berlín (This Is Not Berlin), it happens the second you stop ignoring the other voice inside you that shouts to come out, the one that wants to be heard and free: your soul.
Esto no es Berlín is set to have its New York Premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 28.
Luis Luna is Latino Rebels’ arts writer and associate producer of Latino Rebels Radio. He tweets from @luarmanyc.