With only 50,000 dollars, a group of friends and the collaboration of his 2 million neighbors in the center of Mexico City, Michel Lepkes' début film is a suite for the anonymous, the parias and the quietly desperate. Part day in the life documentary, part surreal poem, Malaventura follows 90-year-old Isaac as he goes through his routine of drinking, riding the train, eating tacos, drinking, selling balloons, drinking, and searching for intimacy in all the wrong places. The immaculate cinematography of Gerardo Barroso, also the camera on The Last Christeros, captures a surprisingly serene city whose monumental indifference is slowly grinding the protagonist back down to dust. Lepkes sat down to discuss Mexico City’s dives, convincing a 90-year-old to star in a film, and how to avoid falling into the Mexican national pastime of melodrama.
More than being a “character-study,” Malaventura seems like an observation of a human body relating to a diverse series of spaces. What qualities about Mexico City were you trying to capture?
90 percent of the action was filmed in the Historic Centre of Mexico City. It’s a faithful rendering of certain spaces that go together in real life though not necessarily the way they’re seen in the film. The taquería, Los Cucuyos, for instance, where the old man goes to eat, is a place I go to all the time. I didn’t pick it for its beauty. But a big part of my work was to just tame the beast. To get the look I wanted, we had to control movement in the streets. We couldn’t get a shot of Los Cucuyos because there were too many cars. The police told us to just block the street with our van. It’s illegal, but they gave us five minutes. Something so surreal and yet it seemed natural. The surreal is part of the ground soil in Mexico.
There were other locations where the look itself was the inspiration. The cantine, El Fiuma, is a speakeasy that used to be a bar until 15 years ago. Don Pepe, the owner, decided to keep it open for the few people who know it still exists and anyone who figures out to knock at the metal grating. It had been a hangout for actors, bullfighters, but now it has the beauty of a place that has become a ruin. Inside it’s a bubble, a time capsule separate from the present. People laugh, cry, tell stories, get drunk, shout. In a film about solitude it seemed like the perfect location because even though it’s usually raucous it exists as an escape from the outside world. It has a very cinematographic quality.
Is Mexico City as difficult a place to live as it looks in Malaventura?
I can’t say if it’s more difficult than other giant urbs: Bangkok, New York. It’s hard to be solitary in a big city, you see everything circulating en masse, everyone productive, but you’re alone. It’s almost as if this abandonment is built into the social organization. It’s normal. There are people who are separate, almost parias. It’s not just because they’ve been driven away, they may have chosen their isolation, but alone it’s very difficult for them to validate that they exist as humans. It’s almost easier to become a ghost. In this film there are a lot of ghosts.
At the same time the people on screen seem very real. How did you cast the film?
They’re people I chose in the street. For the scene in El Fiuma, for example, I chose faces that I thought would get at the essence of the place. No professional actors. Everyone is a first-timer and their all from Mexico’s historic centre. There’s 2 million people there and I was looking to find the most expressive faces, not the conventionally beautiful. It was probably the most difficult part of the film. I found Isaac, the old man, while he was looking for work. He was 90 and looking for work. It wasn’t easy to convince him to star in a film. When you’re that age you’re not going to believe someone when they tell you they suddenly want you to star in a movie.
What kind of work had Isaac done previously? Was it difficult working with a 90-year-old star?
He used to be a decorator. He designed shoe-store interiors. In real life, he’s nothing like the character he plays. He’s someone who has worked all his life, but he’s also a poet, a master woodworker. He is alone, but he enjoys his solitude. That’s why he didn’t understand why I wanted him for the film. He would say: “I’m not like this character.” By the end he didn’t want it to be over. He became like a part of our family. I helped him get his book of poetry edited. So now he’s 91 and he has a movie and a book of his poetry.
When you make a film about an older person it can be easy to slip into sentimentality, but Malaventura is touching without the faintest hint of melodrama. I know you’re a huge admirer of Robert Bresson. What techniques do you think you borrowed from him in order to avoid melodrama?
Mexican culture is dripping with melodrama. It’s a legacy we get from the baroque. But I made a very conscious choice: themes like anxiety, desperation, loneliness, yes, but treated dryly. You need distance to avoid sentimentality. Bresson was a master at this. There’s a scene in Money, which to me is a film about doors--doors that open doors that close—where a door to a store opens and the outside noise comes rushing in. It’s so jarring. And then they close it and there’s peace. That’s emotion created without your typical close-up on the starlet’s face. People think of Bresson and think of the non-professional actors, but to me that’s not the important thing. I share his idea that cinema is something different from literature or theater, something closer to poetry and music.
For a film shot in the street Malaventura is very tonally composed. There isn’t too much visual noise. Was that the key element in creating an emotional response without conventional plot devices or narrative twists?
This is a film, in a sense, about distance, about being separated, but it’s also an intimate film. We spend the whole film with Isaac after all. So we combined long shots with aural close-ups. We’re far from Isaac, but were also right next to him. We hear precisely what he’s doing even as we see the scope of the landscape he’s in. If he were just constantly projecting emotions I think we would miss out on a fundamental respect for him as a human being.
What about the use of music in Malaventura? It seems to emerge from these aural close-ups almost naturally.
The music was like a spectre, a ghost that emerges and then disappears. Galo Durán, who composed the score, used a lot of theremin, which has a very phantasmagoric sound. We wanted it to come up out of the ambient sound--emerge and then go back underground. It’s another one of the ghosts circulating in the film.
You’re a student of a cinema. What reference points in Mexican Cinema do you think came out in the course of making the film?
There’s a shot, the only hand-held shot in the movie, where Isaac is walking on the Eje Central. Inevitably it makes reference to Los Olvidados and many other movies too. It’s a very emblematic street. But it’s particularly important that it is the same street as in Los Olvidados. Buñuel’s surrealism and Mexico are like peas in a pod. That’s why I think Buñuel made such great films here. Mexico is a place full of contradictions. And that reality is present whether you think about it or not. Sometimes you’re conscious or you intend to writing something surreal, but other times it just comes out because it’s part of the world you know. In any case I have no great technique as a writer. Once the script is written I put it away in the office and that’s it. You let the way you’ve decided to set up the space, the internal rhythm of the shots, dictate the action. I think like that you get a balance of fiction and documentary.
What would you say is the health of Mexican film culture today? Do you feel like you have cinematic kindred spirits working or as a filmmaker do you relate to Isaac’s solitude?
Film is this contradiction. It’s born in solitude but it has to be exteriorized. You need collaborators and then the public. I’m not looking to hide behind the screen I think this contradiction between individual and group effort is wonderful. That’s why this film was made between friends who I then repay by working on their projects. So in that sense I’m not like Isaac at all. What’s great is that films can be a lot of different things in Mexico because we have so many different identities. They don’t all have to be Bressonian films although I feel there are a few of us working in this way. Mexican culture permits everything.