It’s difficult to say exactly what kind of film They Are All Dead is. It’s nostalgia towards lost fame is euphoric, yet its tone is tempered throughout; it slides as easily into magical realism as much as it borders on a camp-like oeuvre; it has strokes of the gothic and macabre, yet the narrative never stray into gloomy nihilism. In the hands of a less capable auteur, this could very well have been a messy project. However, debut director Beatriz Sanchis has managed to make the fluidity of this film its biggest strength, and that above all else, makes it quite a unique and impressive venture.
1980s yesteryear pop icon Lupe (a breath-taking central performance by Elena Anaya) is battling severe anxiety and agoraphobia after the untimely death of her brother and fellow band member Diego (Nahuel Perez Biscayart in a refreshingly camp appearance). She’s now resigned to re-living her nostalgia of a lifestyle that’s long since deserted her. Her self-imposed exile has got on the nerves of her opinionated and dominating mother (played over-the-top and hammy by Angelica Aragon). On the Day of the Dead, this dysfunctional family prays for a miracle, and behold, a miracle does happen. Diego returns from the dead, or at least his ghost does, to help Lupe deal with her own demons and get some semblance of normality in the house.
One of the most striking elements of this film is its clever and seamless use of magical realism. The presence and departure of Diego’s ghost is never signposted. He’s as much part of the real, living world as any other being. With his camp-like sensibility and ridiculously sartorial punk-rock dressing sense, Diego is perhaps the closest thing to ‘normality’ that Lupe’s household has seen in a long time. His presence is not jarring, and even though only Lupe can see him, he never feels like a ‘ghost’ or a character that’s been reduced to a plot device to help her cope with her agoraphobia and inability to get past his death.
Even though from a narrative point of view, his presence is definitely a plot device, the way Sanchis seamlessly inserts him into this chaotic household and allows him to have a ‘home’ in Lupe’s bathroom, Diego feels an integral part of the house and you wonder where he had been all these years (even though you know he’s dead). Diego is the final piece of the puzzle in this dysfunctional family. In this way, the presentation of Diego’s ghost helps Sanchis overcome the narrative simplicity of him being reduced to a plot device. Furthermore, it allows They Are All Dead to be truly a magical realist film, as opposed to a film that simply hosts elements of the genre.
Moving on from the camp-like to the macabre – because it’s that kind of a film – Diego’s farcical and fantastical presence is undercut by Lupe’s continued struggled to cope with her agoraphobia. Elena Anaya really shines here in a nuanced portrayal of a person dealing with severe anxiety, but never letting her performance become over-the-top. She gives a grounded composure to the tragic figure of Lupe – a character that’s stuck in a time capsule: she can’t let go of her past fame and glory, but neither can she completely get over her fears such that she can start a new innings with her life. The way Sanchis employs a distinct macabre sensibility to portray how Lupe’s agoraphobia manifests itself is in sharp contrast to the campness of Diego and magical realism. This contrast once again, proves to be extremely effective – it allows Lupe’s mental health to become the driving emotional undercurrent of the narrative. As the audience, you are allowed to indulge in the light-hearted sensibility of Diego only insofar as you don’t forget the real reason Diego is there: Lupe and her inability to cope. The way the film moves so fluidly between these two extremes is commendable and Sanchis must be appreciated for the deftness of touch her vision.
In making Lupe’s anxiety and agoraphobia the emotional driving force of the narrative, combined with Anaya’s measured performance, this film becomes an unlikely nuanced commentary on the way characters and issues of mental health ought to be portrayed on screen. It stands in stark contrast to many reductive, offensive, heavy-handed, over-the-top and stereotypical portrayals of characters with mental health issues on screen across the world that serve only to re-enforce negative, harmful and dehumanising narratives for people who struggle with mental health on a daily basis. However, whereas the characterisation of Lupe and Diego are the strength of film, the reductive and half-baked characterisation of others around them negatively impacts the film. Lupe’s mother never evolves into a fully-fledged character and retains her plot device intention of being a human obstacle for Lupe to overcome. Aragon’s hammy portrayal doesn’t help either.
The film also at times strays into a clichéd “recovery process” narrative when Diego tries to help Lupe cope with her fears. However, Diego’s unpredictability and Anaya’s performance stops the rapidly ensuing disenchantment that happens in the second half. It’s clear that Sanchis has some creases that she can smooth over, but regardless, her ability to string together this fluid, genre navigating debut project is as captivating as it is refreshingly unique. They Are All Dead cannot be put in one box, and ultimately, that’s what captures the audience’s attention.