Stories Untold

Nicolás Pereda, Summer of Goliath, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 76 minutes. Goliath (Oscar Saavedra Miranda).

AMONG THE LESSER-KNOWN FIGURES of Mexican cinema to have emerged over the past decade, Nicolás Pereda bears watching. Like other regional filmmakers, he focuses on local situations, using the same actors playing characters often with the same names, in stories with only slight variations. Four of his five features comprise, in effect, a small-scale human comedy about people of social invisibility and lackluster lives. (His only other feature-length work is a documentary rehearsal of a stage reading by Jesusa Rodriguez, a famous Mexican performer and director.)

The films have simple, almost inconsequential narrative premises, the barest of dialogue, and a kitchen sink–like banality (the last quite literally, in one instance). Where Are Their Stories? (2007), Pereda’s debut feature, opens with young Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez) sitting on his ailing grandmother’s bed. When he learns that his two uncles plan to sell her farm, he leaves for the city to see his mother (Teresa Sánchez) and to seek legal help. Juntos (2009) begins and ends with what seems like the same Gabino searching for his missing dog—perhaps a metaphor for his uneasy, but unexplored, relationship with his girlfriend. In Perpetuum Mobile (2010), Gabino lives with his mother (Sánchez) and works as a furniture mover with his friend Paco. At the end, when Gabino and his mother find his grandmother dead in her apartment, they simply wrap her in a blanket and bury her in the woods—a telling illustration of how little these lives matter in any larger social context.

In all three films, Pereda introduces diversionary scenes with mixed results. In Stories, the childless couple for whom Teresa works as a live-in maid asks her to conceive a child by the husband. Though she agrees, her visible distress following the act telegraphs the veiled pressure she felt to do so. In Perpetuum Mobile, Gabino and Paco remove the belongings of a woman bent on leaving her husband of thirty years, as he follows her around their apartment and convinces her to change her mind. Though such anecdotes seem intended as mordant commentary on the fickleness and insensitivity of the middle class, they have an uncanny, if restrained, resemblance to an episode in a Woody Allen film. Strangely, the protagonists Pereda apparently cares about are no more articulate about their lives, which is not to say that his actors are expressionless. Indeed, the performers are perhaps the strongest element of his work, capable of subtle shifts of emotion that justify many of the long-held shots. Yet, despite the presence of cultural miscellany (shelves of books and CDs) lining their apartment walls, they have little or nothing to say during these five- to seven-minute-long takes. The most animated conversation in Juntos is between Gabino and Paco, complaining about a malfunctioning refrigerator.

Pereda’s more ambitious but willfully puzzling Summer of Goliath (2010) tells a number of stories, none of them fully developed. Set in a rural environment, in which woods, fields, and rivers bear oppressively on the action, the film consists of stories that are juxtaposed with each other, scene by scene, in the fashion of a patchwork quilt. Once again, Teresa Sánchez and Gabino Rodríguez are mother and son, their problems compounded by the husband-father’s abandonment; once again, Gabino lacks a proper job, this time as he plays soldier with a pal. Pereda’s inclusion of interviews with minor characters whose situations are unconnected to the main one lends a documentary air to the entire work, blurring the line between fabrication and what seem to be actual events. The film’s title refers to a young man accused of killing his girlfriend. Though we hear no more about this after the interview that begins the film, it hangs over the movie as a specter of hopelessness and irresolution.

Pereda’s style—extended takes, often handheld and mobile; minimal dialogue; loosely constructed, unresolved narratives; and quasi-documentary touches—is so suited to the confines and aimless lives of his characters that it hardly seems a formalist choice. His approach is patient and observing, his long takes apt measures of the unhurried, directionless nature of his characters’ behavior. It’s not clear whether this style reflects a consistent authorial point of view or is the logical tactic for gazing at people whose personalities and lives would crumble under the analytic dynamics of montage. “Where Are Their Stories?” could be the collective title of Pereda’s films to date. It remains to be seen whether he will continue to address this question as he has or expand his aesthetic to consider its deeper implications.

A retrospective of films by Nicolás Pereda runs July 8–14 at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.