Anarchy in the E.U.M.
One of the pleasures of attending a good film festival — and there are many — is that you never know what you’re going to get. You’ll see first-time directors whose work is entirely new, leaving you with nothing to compare it to; you’ll see films that will likely play at that festival and no other, and likely never surface again, giving you the chance to see something truly unique; you’ll see movies that will have received very little press, giving you nothing to go on but your own instincts. You’ll probably see a lot of bad movies or at least mediocre ones mixed in with the greats, but any festival with a decent-sized slate of offerings is sure to surprise you at least once.
The first movie I saw at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was also the most surprising. I didn’t know what exactly to expect from it, but it certainly wasn’t what I ended up getting. It was intriguing, chaotic, sometimes frustrating and often rewarding, but never anything less than unpredictable. It was nothing like I thought it would be, which I realize can be a back-handed compliment, but I don’t mean it as one; it was a truly unusual offering which I’d encourage everyone to see who has an opportunity to do so.
I Promise You Anarchy is a Mexican production, directed by a young filmmaker named Julio Hernández Cordón; although he’s only 41, he’s already directed two well-received features (2008’s Gasolina and 2012’s Polvo, neither of which I have seen). It stars Diego Calva Hernández and Eduardo Eliseo Martinez as Miguel and Johnny, two bored drifters who cruise the streets of Mexico City lazily kicking their skateboards from one encounter to the next. Still young, the boys have been friends from childhood and are also sporadic lovers with a deep emotional bond. Both boys are played by nonprofessionals, in keeping with Cordón’s usual naturalistic approach, but the performances are intense, believable, and draw from a profound well of emotional connection.
The two could not be more different: Miguel is handsome, well-turned-out, and, if not privileged, at least advantaged; his family has enough money to hire a maid. Johnny is much lower on the class spectrum — indeed, he’s the maid’s son — and is rough, ill-mannered, with a ratty mustache and a scoliotic hunch. Johnny is impoverished and lives in an abandoned gas tank near a freeway overpass, and has an on-again, off-again romance with a lovely girl named Adri (Shvasti Calderón); Miguel lives in a decent house, has nice clothes, and is purely gay, often sniping at Adri and hassling Johnny for his relationship with her. Despite all these differences, however, the two are nearly inseparable, and for the first half-hour of I Promise You Anarchy, it looks to be a Kids-style romance of aimless romance as the two raise walking-around money, along with fellow skater Techno (Diego Escamilla Corona), by selling blood to an unscrupulous clinic.
The story takes a turn, however, when a mutual friend helps arrange a big score: if they can gather up 50 people to make a massive blood donation, the boys will receive a major payoff. Miguel uses his natural charm and gathers up 52, including Adri and Techno; but the scheme — led by sharklike, menacing professional gangster David (the excellent Oscar Mario Botello) — quickly goes awry, and almost all of the kids he gathered together disappear. It’s never revealed what happens to them, but in a country swarming with organ harvesters, desperate criminals, and cartel heavies, it isn’t hard to guess. Having already immersed us in a desperate but beautiful portrait of Mexico City as the home of social castaways who won’t much be missed, this stretch of the film plays like a particularly grim piece of neo-realism.
Tracking down their mutual friend to demand answers, Miguel and Johnny allow things to spin even further out of control: after trying to force their hand, they end up unintentionally committing a murder. This launches I Promise You Anarchy from the direction it seemed to be going — a bloody revenge thriller — into a far moodier noir phase, where it begins to focus on their doomed desperation: every option but fleeing for their lives is instantly cut off for the two boys, and soon enough, even their friendship is put to the test, as Miguel is forced to use his family connections to flee to the United States, leaving the less resourceful Johnny behind. The movie then takes on an almost elegiac, melancholy tone, as their lifelong relationship is shattered and Miguel is left to wonder what the cost of his escape will ultimately be. The final sequence is a perplexing scene — perhaps a dream, perhaps a fantasy, perhaps something else — that is perfectly scored (in a movie that already has a terrific soundtrack) but hard to pin down.
That’s an assessment that more or less describes the entire movie. I Promise You Anarchy sheds its skin so many times, it’s never the same movie for more than twenty minutes at a stretch, despite following only two characters along a pretty well-prescribed narrative; in its relatively brief runtime, it veers from gay romance to urban street drama to social realism to neo-noir to dreamy tone poem. This doesn’t always work in its favor; it’s hard to come up with any kind of coherent assessment of what it’s really about, and the ending seems like the work of someone who wasn’t quite sure where to go once he’d run out of story. But it never once fails to keep you on your toes, which isn’t a bad thing, and it’s buoyed along by the always-watchable relationship between Johnny and Miguel. It’s also technically accomplished, with a great blend of sound and visuals, and Cordón certainly has a fantastic eye, catching some truly stunning views of Mexico City and making his characters’ languid detachments seem compelling. It’s definitely made me want to explore some more of his work, and to see what he comes up with next. Finding movies like this, that reel out surprises even when they aren’t always for the best, is what makes events like CIFF a pleasure of living in this town.