A bold and important film debuted in Miami during the Miami International Film Festival in March that only recently found a distributor. The Miami Beach Cinematheque will host an encore, one-night only screening of the Mexican film After Lucia as the film continues to build word-of-mouth buzz ahead of what will hopefully be a wider release in art houses across the U.S. It’s a timely film, as After Lucia, a raw story about bullying gone awry, dwells on the self-perpetuation of violence within a prescient social landscape involving high-tech gadgets.
Every once in a while, as the news cycle turns, the media jumps on what feels like the same story of pretty young teenage girls crucified in social media for simply being victims: Audrie Pott, Phoebe Prince, the recent Steubenville High School gang rape of a classmate that put some young, hopeful football players in jail. In the case of Pott and Prince it ended in suicide. And these are the stories that make it into the national media on slow news days. It’s become the sort of selective case of coverage for an epidemic. Like cases of missing children, it always seems to be happening but rarely becomes the focused, general interest of national news coverage.
In the Pott and Steubenville cases, the girls were raped and photos of their naked, incapacitated bodies were shared by other students on social media who judged with cold, primal distance, which only seems to enforce the Hobbesian view that man is inherently evil. What better stage of human growth to reinforce that theory but during that almost lycanthropic transformation from childhood innocence to jaded adulthood we call the teen years. Enhancing the matter further is the filter of cyber-space that encourages disconnection further with a sense of disembodiment that denies true, human, empathetic relations.
Those real-life cases mentioned earlier happen to be the ones the media had been obsessing over when After Lucia premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival to a pair of sell-out screenings. What’s amazing is how unsensational After Lucia handles the topic but also goes beyond by looking at the filter of real life via technology like cell phones and social media, though they only appear as tiny props in the distance, focusing instead on human behavior as a result of interaction with these tools.
The film takes off cryptically, with a man picking up a car from a repair shop and then abandoning it in the middle of the street, the keys still inside. Director Michel Franco takes his time to reveal that this is the mournful Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) who lost his wife in a car accident, leaving him and his daughter Alejandra (Tessa Ia) to pick up their roots from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City. The title calls attention to the fact that the father and daughter at the center of the film are a family missing an important component: a mother. Already the odds seem stacked against them, as the despondent father can hardly keep it together while his daughter chooses to hold her school troubles to herself and not burden the father further.
Franco composes the film with small vignettes. It gives the movie a day-in-the-life quality more real than reality TV shows. And all these scenes demand attention for an insightful pay-off that comes toward the end, referencing the loss of Lucia that also ties in with the “share” culture of the Internet. Franco does not employ any extra-diegetic music, hardly cuts between characters in a scene (if at all) and most everything takes place in distant, medium shots. Franco saves devices like close-ups for choice moments of emphasis like the instance Alejandra receives her first text message after she is emailed a video clip of her having sex with one of the boys at school that reads, “Hola, puta.” And it’s downhill from there in a drama that will test the limits of unflinching cruelty beset on Ale by the relentless young mob, filled with human, intriguingly complex characters.
Franco, who also wrote the screenplay, presents a stark perspective by allowing the story to unfold across brief, efficient scenes with a static camera often set in a corner watching. The voyeuristic quality of these scenes implicates the audience, as the bullying and harassment only grows crueller and crueller. This is your world. Furthering that, what are you going to do about it? It’s about passivity that is reflected in various characters in the film. The despondent Roberto remains ignorant to the bullying of his daughter for much of the film. Ale hardly seems to stand up for herself. To a more unnerving degree, neither does anyone else. Others often join in with the remorseless gang of kids that closes in on this helpless young woman, following a sort of cold, reptilian call to eat the weakened. The cold, distant cinematic aesthetic only serves to enhance the horrific scenes that build toward a finale that may seem cathartic to some and hopeless to others.
Franco’s efficient filmmaking style forces the audience to use its own subjective judgments as to what exactly is wrong or right about what these characters are doing. As Shakespeare once wrote, “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” A violent society is a violent society, whether it’s Mexico or the U.S. The lack of value for life stands out in After Lucia, especially in a shocking ending most will find difficult to fathom while still receiving a visceral thrill. That a film can play with such mixed emotions is testament to the director’s patient craftsmanship.
Franco plays with cinema in a deliberate fashion that recalls David Cronenberg’s work with A History of Violence and many of the films of Michael Haneke. He knows how to let a scene linger in order to allow the aftermath to settle under the skin of the audience. It ends on a stark, drawn out, minimalist note that places the responsibility on the audience to wake up and notice that violence begets violence. It’s a brilliant movie by a director who understands how to harness cinema’s subjective power to a level that invites self-reflection. The stark motionless, observational camera sitting in the corner of many scenes is meant to be us. How we react to the scenes is up to us.
After Lucia runs 103 min., is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (mature teens would do well to attend, though). It plays in South Florida for one night only: Thursday, Oct. 10, at 9:30 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as part of the theater’s “Cinephile’s Choice” series. It premiered in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which I was invited to a preview screening by the film’s French distributor, BAC Films. For updates on the film’s appearance in the U.S., follow its distributor, Pantelion Films, here.
Update: The movie went direct-to-video in the U.S. It’s streaming on Netflix now.