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Thread: This Is Not Berlin (Hari Sama 2019)

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    This Is Not Berlin (Hari Sama 2019)


    XABIANI PONCE DE LEÓN AND JOSÉ ANTONIO TOLEDANO IN [I]THIS IS NOT BERLIN/ESTO NO ES BERLÍN


    Making it through a wild artistic adolescence in one piece

    How nice it would be in director Hari Sama's autobiographical coming of age flick (his fifth feature) to be Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), protagonist of his story set in 1986, the post-earthquake year the Mexico City of This Is Not Berlin. Why mention Berlin? Because sixteen-year-old Charley, aka Carlitos, aka Charley (Xabiani Ponce de León), though only a high school boy, falls in with an arty and musical and political group who seem like they might be the town's hippest, druggiest, and most beautiful and sexy people. It's not Berlin, but maybe it comes kind of close, and European cultural sophistication and experimentation are challenges and inspirations. That's partly what this movie is about, and just being young and beautiful and striking styles and poses. Not a profound subject perhaps, but a rich and heady one that Sama evokes with consummate skill and, through his cinematographer Alfredo Altamirano, beauty. The parties, full of Eighties music and drugs, are also art events.

    Charley's entree into the arty-party scene comes for two reasons. Not only is he tall and androgenously pretty, with big hair he styles every which way, sporting a different look in nearly every scene, which seems to fit in quite well in this avant-garde subculture, but he is also a skillful tinkerer with electronics. This enables him to fix the keyboard of a noise punk band at a key moment, and they let him and his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) into the coolest club, the Aztec. Gera's older sister Rita (Ximena Romo), who's in the band and who Charley has a crush on, gets them in.

    Hari Sama, who also plays Charliey's mentor, his counter-culture uncle Esteban, has quite a knack for evoking all the art forms and lifestyles and music of that era when AIDS was becoming a terrifying reality, though it's barely mentioned here. Charley plays with gay, because Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro), a key figure of the Aztec club and art scene, loves kissing him and is just waiting for more. Ironically, it's Gera who likes boys, as it turns out. Where else is there a world where an older seducer turns on the younger to a Negroni, and that leads to mota and coca (weed and coke)? Students of Spanish can brush up their Mexican slang and that country's rich vocabulary of swear words. If you're not a "wey" you may be a "pendejo."

    The sense of social status seems generous and a bit vague. Most of these people seem wealthy, though it's chiefly the riches of youth and creativity. They're also white, though they might not pass as such with a racist gringo. They come off as just middle class, not the rich-poor split shown in Cuarón's Y tu mamá también. There are just a couple of hints that there's a whole tougher, feistier have-not world of mestizos and indios out there. Is this part of what motivates the recurrent battles between high schools that make Charley pass out?

    This is all very much from Charley's point of view: there's not much about his depressed single-parent mom (Marina de Tavira of Cuarón's Roma) or about school. It's about culturally "advanced" people of the moment who might stage a performance piece mocking the machismo of soccer in public before a big match, play archaic video games, or listen to Lightin' Hopkins on vinyl while smoking a big Michuacán spliff. This film is less intimate than some of the other cool hip Latin American youth pictures of recent years by the likes of Alonso Ruizpalacio, Alex dos Santos, Che Sandoval, Fernando Eimbcke and Gerardo Naranjo, and it's a little more conventional than they would be in its plot trajectories of acceptance, loss, experimentation, and reconciliation. Mostly it makes up for its familiar structure with its unusually dense period-specific collective action - but not entirely. Charley seems at times just little more than a glamorous fashion model. It's not a great surprise when he makes it through everything unscathed, since he is so often cool and withdrawn. The film itself has too much style and not enough substance.

    This Is Not Berlin/Esto no es Berlín, 115 mins., debuted Jan. 2019 at Sundance, showing also in at least a half dozen international festivals, including several LGbT ones. It opened in NYC Aug. 8, 2019. Watched at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley California Aug. 31. Metascore 69%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-01-2019 at 01:08 AM.

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