In the mid 80’s, I remember going to many shows at a venue known as The Gorilla Gardens, in Seattle. It was a dingy all-ages club constructed out of a run-down theater. Most Fridays there were two shows. If you went to the left, you were in a punk show. If you went to the right, you were in a metal show. It was a time of adventure and possibility and danger. The vibrant and true to life This Is Not Berlin mines that spirit of exploration and discovery.
This Is Not Berlin is a period piece, mid-80’s, that shows a side of Mexican society rarely represented in modern cinema. I am always wary, considering my background in the 80’s underground music scene, of how it will be portrayed. The punk/underground scene is often painted as cartoonish or frightening, but director Hari Sama’s vision is both grounded and believable. To his credit, Sama isn’t content to go the Stranger Things nostalgia route. He doesn’t overpopulate the scenes with a blinding array of pop culture images. Sure, there are a few nods to the time (a He-Man action figure makes a brief appearance), but overall this is a lived-in, realistic vision of suburban life in Mexico.
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At its heart, This Is Not Berlin is a movie about identity and friendship. The film opens as Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) stands silently amid a brawl between two groups of school boys. Apparently, it is a fairly regular thing for rival schools to meet and fight. The opening scenes follow Carlos and his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) navigating adolescent life. Carlos loves classic rock and tinkering with toys, turning them into robotic art pieces. Gera trades his father’s nudie mags at school for cash and acceptance by the other boys. Both are best friends and obvious outsiders.
Gera’s older sister, Rita (Ximena Romo) is part of the local underground music scene and the secret object of Carlos’ eye. Unfortunately, Rita has a boyfriend. All of this could be the setup for any John Hughes movie, but Rita is no Molly Ringwald type. She fashions herself as a sort of second-coming of Patti Smith. But, when her band are saddled with a broken keyboard, Carlos’ tinkering abilities come in handy. Rita invites both Carlos and Gera to the Aztec club and thus begins their adventure.
The remaining two thirds of the movie is focussed mostly on Carlos and Gera’s exploration of this underground scene. The Aztec is not so much a punk rock venue as a post-punk, dark-wave artist collective. Think of it as an 80’s version of Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory. Carlos reels as he is faced with experimental music, confrontational art, political protest, sexual fluidity, and of course, drugs. At one point, one of our characters asks if The Aztec is a gay bar (be warned, the f word as a gay slur appears several times) only to get the response that it’s an “everything bar.”
The following scenes of Carlos’, and to a lesser degree Gera’s, adventures through the underground are both the great strengths and weaknesses of the film. Leon as Carlos is a strikingly beautiful man, like the reincarnated vision of Dead or Alive’s Peter Burns. But as a protagonist, Carlos is a bit of a blank slate. He floats through these ever-increasing visions of sexual and artistic exploration, but doesn’t really seem to react. He is supposed to be the emotional core of the film, but many times, as viewers, we really don’t know what he’s thinking.
In general, voiceover is a cheap narrative trick, but this movie would have benefited greatly from the ability to hear Carlos’ inner monologue. How does he feel about the rampant drug use around him? How does he feel about the heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual people around him? Even when, back at school, his schoolmates literally mark his back with pink paint, as a slur to his possible homosexuality, he just walks blankly away. One would think you might have a pretty strong reaction to such a thing. In the final analysis, it’s this lack of emotional connection with Carlos that keeps holding this movie back. It’s ironic that a movie which is so comfortable with male and female nudity, a movie that is exploring breaking free from the oppression of conventional mores, is also so reserved in how it presents its protagonist.
This Is Not Berlin boasts a strong supporting cast, most notably Mauro Sanchez Navarro as Nico, a Warhol-esque artist/mentor, Hari Sama as Carlos’ “cool uncle,” who encourages his musical/artistic exploration, and finally, Marina de Tavira (Roma) as his ailing mother. If this movie had just let us connect a little more deeply with Carlos and Gera, it could have risen from good to truly great.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
This Is Not Berlin opens August 9 at New York’s IFC Center and August 23 at Los Angeles’ Nuart Theatre.
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