Saturday, February 11, 2017
From the very first moments of Bleak Street, we know we're not in for a carnival ride. It tells a story of doomed people in such a downbeat way that we're not especially moved by the tragedy, but are simply relieved when it's over. Though the movie is marked by stunning camera work and fine acting, it's a bit of an endurance test. It's about two over-the-hill Mexican prostitutes, Adela and Dora, and two pint-sized masked wrestlers, "Little Death" and "Little AK 47," and how the four come together. Their story takes place on the appropriately named Bleak Street, which seems like a stylized version of a real place. It's as if James M. Cain had set one of his morbid noir stories in the bowels of Mexico City and populated it with the dregs of society.
Bleak Street, allegedly based on a true incident, is about Mexicans of the lowest strata, the poorest of people who are only trying to survive and maintain some dignity, even as they have sex in alleys, or wear masks to hide their identities. Adela and Dora are not the wisecracking hookers you might see in an American movie; they're tired and running out of resilience. When we first see Adela, she's rinsing her mouth in a public fountain after being with a client. Adela and Dora's problems include ungrateful daughters, gay husbands, and encroaching poverty.
One of the intriguing things about the film is the way it shows the daily lives of these characters. The story is told gradually; first one thing happens, then another. We see the dilemmas play out.
The movie begins with our introduction to Little Death and Little AK47. They're identical twin brothers who have found success by playing the diminutive sidekicks of two much larger masked wrestlers. Little Death has a chip on his shoulder; he treats his wife roughly, and is resentful of the wrestler he is supposed to shadow. Though he's making money, he's too broke to buy quality material for his wrestling costume.
The twins keep their masks on all the time for business reasons. We see them walking through the dank streets, smoking cigarettes, training in the ring, and visiting their mother to be blessed before a contest. We can't see their faces so we don't know exactly how they feel. The masks have a dehumanizing effect; the pair seem less like men and more like stunted representations of men, or little phantoms.
The first part of the film is solely theirs, but we're soon acquainted with Adela (Patricia Reyes Spindola) and Dora (Nora Velazquez). If the wrestlers are bitter about their lots in life, the prostitutes have hit a sort of rock-bottom desperation. Adela has an elderly woman living with her; Adela sends her out daily to beg for money. The neighbors threaten to report her for elderly abuse. Meanwhile, Dora catches her husband having sex with a young man. She's mostly mad because her hubby (Alejandro Suarez) was wearing her clothes, stretching them out.
Eventually we learn that Adela and Dora used to give their clients knockout drops and rob them. How they got away with this in such a small, enclosed neighborhood is unclear, but it's part of the fable that's being unveiled. The two women then focus on the wrestlers, who have become minor celebrities in the area. The women plan to drug them and make a big score. But because the wrestlers are small, the dose is fatal. The movie then becomes a story of hookers on the run. Not surprisingly, they don't get very far, as if their bleak neighborhood is a kind of vortex from which they can't escape.
Bleak Street won some minor acclaim last year on the international festival route, and played in New York for the blink of an eye. Kino Lorber's new DVD is quite welcome, for the movie has an undeniable visual power. The approach is grimly poetic, with a kind of prickly existentialism at every corner. No one can win on Bleak Street.
Cinematographer Alejandro Cantú shoots the movie in black and white, giving it a steely, silvery sheen. There seems to be no difference between night and day, for the characters are shown in perpetual grayness. And there's something touching about the closeness of the characters; the twins are always together, patting each other on the back, one calming the other down. Adela and Dora share a closeness, too. When Adela worries that she's losing her looks, Dora tells her she still has cheekbones like Dolores Del Rio, the great Mexican actress of the 1930s and '40s. It's the kind of thing teenage girls might say to each other; it's doubly touching when a 60-year-old whore says it.
The movie was directed by Mexico's Arturo Ripstein, who has been creating complex, challenging movies since the 1960s. At 73, he still makes daring, uncomfortable art.