One of the salient features of the ongoing drug wars in Mexico is how opaque the issue is to outsiders. Though we know who is doing the killing and who is being killed, it’s often difficult to get much further, especially in terms of why the authorities seem so powerless to do anything about it. Watching this debut by the Romanian-Belgian director, Teodora Ana Mihai, I was almost immediately struck by the notion that almost everyone in Mexico feels the same way; that they really can’t grasp exactly why there is a war and why it has become so deadly for “civilians,” per the movie’s title.
The protagonist is Cielo (Arcelia Ramirez), a middle aged mother raising her teenage daughter, Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta), by herself because her businessman husband has left her for a younger woman. When Laura is kidnapped by a group of young toughs who demand 150,000 pesos and Cielo’s husband’s truck for her return, Cielo is more than just terrified. She’s baffled. Why her daughter, who has no connection to drug cartels and whose father doesn’t really have that much money? Cielo and her prickly husband, Gustavo (Alvaro Guerrero), patch things up on the fly in order to get their daughter back, but each time they meet the kidnappers’ demands the bar gets lifted a little higher, and in the process, as Gustavo loses his nerve, Cielo takes on the personality of an avenging angel, complete with black baseball cap; except that, unlike your usual Hollywood revenge thriller, she is not Liam Neeson and can’t gain much traction on a criminal element that seems so entrenched and far-reaching that it affects everyone she knows. Even as she joins up with an ad hoc paramilitary force that resorts to its own terror tactics to fight the criminals, she comes to see how the drug cartels and their adjuncts carry out kidnappings not so much to fund their illegal activities, but to instill, on a permanent basis, a feeling of incipient terror in the populace so that the authorities, whether they are the police or the military, can’t rely on civilians to help them in their mission. Chaos can be the only result, and the cartels thrive on it.
Consequently, Cielo cannot trust anyone she meets to help her regain her daughter, because they may, like her, be the victim, whether directly or indirectly, of the cartels’ machinations and have carried out terrible acts themselves as a result. As the movie reaches its implication that Cielo will probably never see Laura again, the horror of her realization is, again, compounded by bewilderment: If her daughter is indeed dead, it’s not only a senseless death, but a meaningless one. Unlike Liam Neeson’s actions, Cielo’s own descent into violence is desperate without being effective, because the problem is just too huge. La Civil contains scenes of torture, murder, and brute intimidation, but its most terrifying aspect is the feeling that it’s all inescapable.
In Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8606), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).
La Civil home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Menuetto/One for the Road/Les Films du Fleuve/Mobra Films.