First-time director Gael Garcia Bernal cannot be denied his zeal and some decent amount of craft, but “Chicuarotes” only scratches the surface which many other films already explored in a much deeper sense.
Back in 2002, Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund directed “City of God”. A movie that influenced almost every gangster-themed, South-and-or-Central American film to follow. It was a masterfully executed, insightful thesis on how poverty pushes people to crime, but also how determination may steer them away from that evil too.
In “Chicuarotes”, the story follows Cagalera (Benny Emmanuel) and Moloteco (Gabriel Carbajal) – two teenage boys living in Mexico City. Both live from hand to mouth, and their only attempt at making a penny is to perform a half-assed clown routine on a public bus. When their unmoved audience throws nothing but a bored stare into their empty sack of gold, Cagalera reaches for a gun and robs all the commuters.
Cagalera is whom we follow for most of the time in “Chicuarotes”. This feisty wannabee-thug represents a desperate call of the youth. He’s given no perspectives in the God-forsaken world that surrounds him. A drunkard of a father, who beats the crap out of his wife, no money or plan for life and the perspective of rotting in a hellhole he despises with full heart are all metrics of the boy’s life.
In such terrible situation, Cagalera seeks a way out. In the mean time, he will romantically promise his girlfriend an escape from this mess (a clear nod towards Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre”), but while attempting to get a few pesos, he also digs his own grave. Because together with Moloteco, they cross the line and become a public enemy number one of their entire neighborhood.
Cagalera isn’t the kind of protagonist that evokes positive emotions. From scene one, he’s presented as a hot-tempered character, as well as careless, selfish and destructive. Bernal never paints this boy’s moral compass with vivid colors, leaving the audience with examples of Cagalera’s stupidity only, but lacking a reason to feel sorry for him.
But this problem with Cagalera isn’t Bernal’s fault – it’s the plot that fails to build that character. The story, conceived in the mind of Augusto Mendoza, is a patchwork of too many concepts thrown into one boiling pot. The screenwriter wanted to do everything at once – bash domestic violence and the silent social permission for it, showcase the lack of opportunities created for the Mexican youth, peek at cartel’s reign in the city, and show how barrio executes justice when the system fails. It’s as if the world is seen through the eyes of Cagalera – it’s all born in a moment to die just as instantly, without any deeper thought put into it.
Frankly, some directors and writers pull such controlled chaos off. Safdie brothers nailed it in “Good Time”, not to mention “City of God” once more. That effect can actually be pretty powerful.
Not in the case of Gael Garcia Bernal though, who is clearly lost in his own piece. The first-time director can’t really find the focus with so many threads around. As a consequence, Cagalera trying to escape Mexico City is a poor rip-off from “Sin Nombre”, and the portrait of cartel-driven life pales when compared to “Amores perros”.
Bernal’s “Chicuarotes” is even less articulate in its criticism of limited chances than its Colombian indie brother “Matar a Jesus” from 2017. Bernal tries hard to think big but that exact ambition limits his ability to dig deeper.
Setting aside all that’s clearly not working in “Chicuarotes”, Bernal’s drama isn’t a deadpan joke. As a director, the Mexican actor exhibits flair and urge to become an important voice in the independent scene. He’s got the camera work figured, knows when the right soundtrack comes to aid. But this film oozes ambition that’s lost in translation when the chaotic script ruins the premise.
There’s no doubt that films like “Chicuarotes” are what drives the independent cinema today. Dramas should aim at sticking nose wherever the stench of problems and rot is barely bearable, and by doing so push us to think harder, appreciate what we have and share it with those in need. But, at the same time, these films can – or should I say need to – bring quality from the artistic point of view too. And that’s where Gael Garcia Bernal’s “Chicuarotes” feels under-cooked.
DIr. Gael Garcia Bernal
Overall Judgment: Gael Garcia Bernal worked with a muddled script, and though he exhibits potential in “Chicuarotes”, this debut lacks power and thought put into it.