“What a wonderfully crappy life” is probably not the meaning of either “Que Caramba Es La Vida” or this documentary’s original German title. Yet in German filmmaker Doris Dorrie’s fascinating portrait of female mariachis plying their trade in Mexico City, the phrase summarizes both the joys and frustrations of this culturally valued hand-to-mouth job.
Sexism plays a major role in describing the subjects of Dorrie’s film this way. The traveling musicians in sombreros and colorful costumes may be familiar sights in Mexican enclaves. But until about fifty years ago, only men were mariachis. Dorrie’s film subjects are the women who currently publicly perform as mariachis in spite of male mariachis’ resentment of their talent, their intrusion or both.
Maria del Camen, one of Dorrie’s principal subjects, sings in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi in the evenings. Her brassy self-confidence and her strong voice serve as her armor against male mariachis’ old boy’s club attitudes as well as the drunks and drug users who also inhabit the Plaza. Del Carmen’s heartbreaking weariness at her daily struggles playing for money are tempered by the self-awareness that she’s the sole breadwinner for her mother and daughter.
The other principal subjects are Lupita and the other women of the mariachi group Estrellas de Jalisco. Housewives by day, they and the men of their group mainly play evening and weekend events such as birthday parties. Rather than adding more stress, the performances give Lupita and her fellow housewives temporary liberation from the responsibilities of raising a family. On the other hand, returning home reeking of a venue’s secondhand cigar smoke can spark arguments between these mariachis and their wrongfully jealous husbands.
Dorrie doesn’t romanticize the hardships of the mariachi profession. Del Carmen’s nightly earnings of ten pesos per performance are at the mercy of such uncontrollable factors as heavy rainstorms. Yet these mariachis that Dorrie presents to the viewer are moved by a passion that transcends age and circumstance to favor the heart’s need to sing loudly and strongly.
Using the lyrics of The Beatles’ “Help!” to teach English provides the only mildly amusing moment of David Trueba’s “Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed.” What’s seen of the rest of the film flunks the “why should I care” test. Emotional urgency is lacking in both teacher Antonio’s efforts to meet Beatles member John Lennon in person and runaways Belen’s and Juanjo’s efforts to escape their limited options in Franco-era Spain. This film is for those preferring their comedy/dramas unsurprising.
For turning a familiar story into darkly hilarious entertainment, Hans Petter Moland’s Norwegian comedy/thriller “In Order Of Disappearance” ably succeeds in its task. Moland inventively improves the “ordinary man seeks revenge against a criminal gang” plot by adding notes of often dark humor.
Immigrant Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgaard) is a small town snow plow driver who wins a Citizen of the Year award. That glory soon feels hollow after his son Ingvar is murdered via a faked drug overdose. Dickman’s quest for revenge soon undoes a truce between Norwegian drug lord The Count and his Serbian opposite Papa (Bruno Ganz). As the corpses start piling up, who will live to the film’s end?
Moland wisely avoids allowing revenge to turn Dickman into an invincible avenging angel. Instead, his early successes against The Count are the product of social invisibility and a lot of luck. Who pays attention to a snowplow driver? Yet as The Count notices the effects of Dickman’s actions, the snowplow driver doesn’t transcend his ordinariness. One beatdown leaves him badly winded. He ignores the warning signs of his wife Gudrun’s cooling attitude towards him.
The Count, Papa, and some of their respective gang members display more humorous individuality than Dickman’s dull virtue. The Count may casually kill someone, but an aggressive ex-wife generally cows him. A Serbian thug makes a Norwegian prison stay sound like a penal system vacation resort. “Top Gun” and other Hollywood films inspire criminals’ odd nicknames.
Norway’s casual racism and homophobia get the soft pedal treatment from Moland. There are casual racial slurs against Serbs and the Chinese. It’s treated as a given that a pair of crooks must keep their homosexual relationship on the down low. Most tellingly, Dickman seems to earn his Citizen of the Year award for being a hardworking immigrant who lives a socially invisible life.
A last bit of acerbic wit comes courtesy of the English translator. The film’s title offers a nice play on the phrase “In Order Of Appearance,” which is used to identify the characters who appear onscreen. In the case of Moland’s film, the characters generally remain anonymous until they get killed and ushered out of the story. A black screen announcing the victim’s nickname, a religious symbol appropriate for that character’s beliefs, and his real name provides the deceased’s identity.
For those hostile to the concept of long comic buildup, they will be annoyed that the majority of the film’s best jokes come after Papa and the Serbians are truly introduced. But the familiar genre structure of the first half’s setup is needed to unleash the chaos dominating the second half of the film. Rest assured the unique use of construction equipment catalogs and an important punch to the face makes the wait worthwhile. If that’s not satisfactory, hearing spaghetti Western-style music linked with visuals of Norwegian wastelands oddly feels right.
(“Que Caramaba Es La Vida” screens October 11, 2014 at 11:00 AM at the Cinearts@Sequoia Theater 2 (25 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley). “Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed” screens October 9, 2014 at 8:00 PM at the Cinearts@Sequoia Theater 1 (25 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley). “In Order of Disappearance” screens October 10, 2014 at 5:45 PM at the Rafael Film Center Theater 2 (1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael). For further information about these films, other screening times, and to order advance tickets, go to www.mvff.org .)Arts & Entertainment