Man and boy

The Venezuela-born and New York-trained director Lorenzo Vigas was responsible for the 2015 Venice Golden Lion winner, From Afar/Desde allŕ, a highly original debut that depicted the unfolding of a complicated, dangerous relationship between a middle-class Chilean man living in Caracas (played by the great Alfredo Castro) and a combative young male prostitute he takes in (Luis Silva). Vigas' second feature, mysteriously titled La caja ("The Box"), moves far from any city, to the northern wastelands of Mexico. It follows the bond that develops between a big, fat, brash middleman for factory sweatshops, and a quiet orphaned teen in search of a father. With these different elements, there are germane themes, the relation of man and boy and similar dynamics and ambiguities, with a similar infusion of excitement and mystery.

The main focus of The Box is thirteen-year-old Hatzín Leyva (previous non-actor Hatzín Navarretez), who is in school, in seventh grade, about to move on to eighth but off on a mission into the bled. The camera is often on his face, which seems peaceful and withdrawn. It becomes an interesting face, one we watch for subtle changes and hints of the feeling surging within. Acting in the name of the grandmother he lives with, as the film begins Hatzín is finishing a long bus ride to a remote area to collect the remains of Estéban Leyva, his long-absent father, that have been found, with many others, in a mass grave. (The routine is an all-to-frequent one in Mexico.) Showing a birth certificate and a photo ID of his father, he receives the remains in a tin box. (It's surprisingly bulky.) Heading home with this object on another bus, Hatzín thinks he sees his father alive and jumps off the bus and comes looking for him. The man he stops (Hernán Mendoz) says he is not Estéban Leyva, Hatzin's father, but Mario. He pushes the boy away and calls him an idiot.

But Hatzín is persistent, very much so - even walking back from a long distance when Mario has left him at a highway bus stop in the desert wasteland. Apparently impressed by the boy's determination, Mario eventually takes Hatzín in and lets him ride along in his truck and help in his work, recruiting and organizing sweatshop employees and their payment by factories. Mario is a school dropout. Hatzín's literacy and above all his skill with numbers come in handy for the work wrangling the laborers and keeping his own boss from cheating him. The pair, man and boy, become a sort of team. Paradoxically the boy himself now becomes a dropout, abandoning everything, calling his grandmother in Mexico City only rarely to reassure her, just so he can pursue this relationship. Does he really believe Mario is his father? Might it even be true? In this world of dreams and lies, the film keeps us guessing.

But as the partnership grows, bad things happen, in which Hatzín is asked to participate. Vigas, making good use of a score-free film with a precise sound design and cinematography long on wide horizons and soft colors, has suddenly made a dull, humdrum narrative turn surprising and turned the film into a mystery and an adventure when Hatzín jumps off the bus. This magic works throughout. Everything develops an edge, even Navarretez's seemingly soft, serene face. But we sense what the face is hiding now.

Navarrete, who never acted before, is the perfect foil for the veteran Mendoz, and a contrasting personality. Mendoz's character is bluster, violence, and warmth; he can be kind but he can be cruel. Navarretez's serene, sphinx-like quality can suddenly dissolve into a disarming gap-toothed smile. In the film's opening moments traveling on the bus, the boy is standing in the toilet kicking at something over and over. It's a hint, a strange note, showing the anger and frustration hidden behind the apparent smoothness and calm. There is also persistence, adaptability, and perhaps great longing.

Set in the harsh landscape of northern Mexico whose skies and clouds are beautiful and whose sweatshop factories - and finally after working with Mario outside of them for some time, Hatzin visits a big one and lingers - are a grim nightmare of wage slavery, The Box is Vigas' third and last installment in a putative fiction trilogy on the theme of the father figure after the 2004 short film Elephants Never Forget, which premiered at Cannes Critics' Week, with the midpoint his debut feature From Afar.

Shot on 35mm anamorphic by acclaimed Chilean cinematographer Sergio Armstrong - who was the dp for From Afar and is known for his frequent work for Pablo Larraín, The Box obviously combines its complex psychological thriller playing with paternity with a very realistic sidelong glance at Mexico’s maquiladora system. (The initial recruitment is always a pitch about how Chinese girls have little hands, and we've got to beat them.) There is also a more sweeping undertone of awareness of the widesparead violence and illegality of Mexico and the dominance of the drug lords, of the reasons why mass graves and disappearances are commonplace.

Mario and his little team have already carried out a major theft, stealing a big-rig truck and removing the valuable goods it carries. Now one of the workers Mario is in charge of has mysteriously died. Hatzín seeks to find out whose plastic-wrapped corpse he has helped Mario bury. And when he finds out, this becomes a wedge.

The screenplay by Virgas with Paula Markovitch and Laura Santullo skillfully and suggestively interweaves its various themes. There is also a hint of Mario's potential rise: with others, he is working to start a factory-sweatshop of his own, and he seems to have access to farmland and horses, as if to be stepping from illiterate to gentry via hard work and easy morals. Hatzin is finding out rather quickly what may be expected of him. At the older man's prompting, he can learn to "lie" - they play with that idea lightly. But as the sense of family and the collaboration grows, the boy is being drawn into much worse. The ending has the beauty of a classic short story and the whole thing, with its neutral, impervious boy at the center, has the quality of the picaresque.

Some viewers, or citizen commentators, apparently find this film too low-key for their taste, but the critics are liking it. Guy Lodge calls The Box a "Short, Sharp, Gut-Punching Psychological Thriller" in his Variety review and says its "tense mystery of fathers, sons and surrogates" is "extending themes from his awarded 2015 debut From Afar. Lodge says The Box is "wholly of a piece with his debut in its terse, cut-to-the-quick refinement, its loaded, exquisitely composed images, and its fixation on shifting, complex man-versus-boy dynamics." David Rooney is equally enthusiastic in Hollywood Reporter, calling the film "an acutely observed chamber piece played out by two exceptionally well-cast actors who keep you guessing about the subtle shifts in their characters’ relationship," as well as "an unflinching account of human lives rendered disposable by greed and corruption." Vigas is an exciting talent, this is one of the best foreign releases of the year, and we can't wait till his next film.

The Box/La caja, 92 mins, debuted at Venice and is listed by IMDb with 18 other international festivals. Chosen as Venezuela’s Submission for the 2023 Academy Awards, it opened theatrically in the US (Cinema Village, NYC) Nov 4, 2022 and opens on MUBI a week later, Nov. 11. Metacritic rating: 82%