Daniel and Diego Vega Vidal are often referred to in English-language film criticism as Peru’s answer to the Coen brothers, their two features films marked by character-centric dark comedy and a sense of existential dilemma. The Mute, their latest film, reinforces that perhaps this notion of similarity with the Coens is unfounded. The Vidals lack the visual daring of the Coens, nor do they carefully construct plot lines that crash into one another, nor do they rely a lot on verbal wit and important supporting performances. What they are able to do, though, is craft a subtle and languidly paced film that is comic when seen more broadly. The film doesn’t attempt cheap physical humour or sudden plot shifts; we move slowly through the sequence of events, the central performance of Fernando Bacilio anchoring the narrative.
The plot is mostly intimate, as a character-centric film we spend almost all of our time with Constantino Zegarra, a magistrate in Lima who appears unswayed by corruption. Following his refusal to assist a family in exchange for financial bribes, he finds his car window smashed. In a darkly comic twist of fate, he finds the next day that he has been demoted from his position and will be transferred to a lesser post in Mala. On his drive home, we sit with him at the traffic lights as he contemplates his future. The lights turn green – he is hit in the neck by a stray bullet, rendering him mute. In order to stave off his oncoming career decline, he instigates an investigation into who shot him and becomes slightly obsessed with the family he spurned in the opening scene of the film.
What makes the string of unfortunate incidents that follow him even more darkly comic is the fact that Bacilio plays Zegarra stoicly. We hardly see any emotion from him throughout the film, his comically dour expression tonally important in highlighting both his personal strife but also that of Peruvian bureaucracy more broadly. This makes for an entertaining contrast, in one scene we see him at a traffic stop yelling at cars nearby but because of his loss of voice he just mimes, and in another, one of the more strangely powerful scenes of the film, Zegarra bursts into tears at an odd moment, a reaction to this almost loathing of the self.
This inability to properly express emotion is shown visually through the recurring motif of people being bottled in or enclosed in a movie space. In addition to the scenes of Zegarra in his car, there is an oddly striking shot of him and his wife in a bus, not to mention the fact that all of their moments of physical intimacy happen behind a shower curtain – a handful of times in the film we return to their bathroom to see almost the exact same sequence occur. This repetition is effective at constructing Zegarra’s mundane routine but also the inability to express affection or emotion more broadly. When he wakes up in the hospital after being shot, his family, a prosecutor and another magistrate stand over him not with looks of concern but rather bemusement.
The film’s thematic points, whilst fairly obvious, still lacked a structured and clear depiction onscreen. Whilst the Vidals effectively display the bureaucracy in Lima, they don’t go far enough in illustrating that Constantino, as in individual, is seemingly incorruptible. Perhaps spending some more time in the opening act dealing with this notion would have made his descent into blind conspiracy even more amusing. The film does, though, fairly amusingly depict the underfunding rife in the police department, who at one point claim that they will need to stop the investigation because they can’t afford phone calling cards.
The cinematography is intentionally bland, beige rooms and hallways et al – yet when it is contrasted with the often vibrant colours of the landscape, there seems to be no real tangible reason for this artistic juxtaposition, considering that the ‘outside’ is never revered in the film, particular since most of our landscape shots are used in a short montage as he goes to Mala. In addition to this, the musical score is unnecessary, a pointed guitar line that comes in whenever he decides to tail someone on his own is a little too much in pushing a comedic character shift into pastiche. The movement into dream sequences, which occur only a handful of times in the film, don’t entirely succeed either, though they illustrate Zegarra’s fears well, they feel out of place tonally in the film.
As a whole, though, The Mute is something different, whilst refreshing is perhaps not the best word to use, it does situate us fully within the world of a character in an impressive manner. Bacilio deserves praise for his ability to remain compelling even when his character becomes less likable, but also in his ability to convey much through minute expressions and a lot of silence. The Vidals’ film won’t be for everyone, the pace is slow and only becomes more amusing in retrospect, yet if you can appreciate a more subtle and subdued crisis of character, you may find The Mute a rewarding viewing.
The Mute will screen as part of the Sydney Latin American Film Festival. You can find details of the film, festival and other screenings here.