By Elias Savada.
Mexico’s grand auteur Arturo Ripstein is in fine neorealistic form with his devilishly depressing feature Bleak Street (La calle de la amargura), tripping over the world of luchadores wrestling as street walkers cozy by. With its film noir tonal quality, it is destined for the art house market, fashioning style over content with mesmerizing photography by Alejandro Cantú, his second consecutive black-and-white effort with the director, following 2011’s The Reasons of the Heart (Las razones del corazón), unreleased in the United States. In fact, most Americans aren’t familiar with Ripstein’s work over the last 20 years. His last theatrical release here was 1996’s award-winning Deep Crimson, handled by the illustrious indie company New Yorker Films. Roger Ebert loved the film: “Macabre and perverse…. There were walk-outs when I saw the film; those who stay will not easily forget it.”
Similar thoughts might fill the audiences catching Ripstein’s latest excursion.
What could easily pass as a lost film of Luis Buñuel (with whom Ripstein had a long friendship and worked for as an assistant director), with echoes of déjà vu laying just around the street corners, here is a story filled with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and hopelessness. This might loosely be called a provocative black comedy, the niche commodity of the film’s American distributor Leisure Time Features, which for nearly 25 years has been providing the art film market with interesting fare, including 1997’s subtle, bittersweet comedy Un Air de Famille (Family Resemblances), the company’s biggest box office success. Maybe they’ll look into bringing some of this director’s older works across the border. Before Trump builds that wall.
Two rough-and-ready sparkplugs named Little Death (La Muerte Chiquita) and Little AK (a.k.a. AKita), as in AK-47 Russian firearm, part of his act and crisscrossing his mask) are always masked twin midget wrestlers (Juan Francisco Longoria and Guillermo López), grown children of a stern, religious mother who castigates their carousing, but pays for their nights on the town. They’re mascots in a subterranean world populated by other low-budget wrestlers, including their like-named, normal-sized, main event counterparts.
Nearby, Adela (Patricia Reyes Spíndola), a well-worn woman of the night, finds that experience does not allow her privileges in a vocation where beauty and youth prevail. She lives and “cares” for her destitute, senile mother in a pit of seclusion and squalor (the whole world of the film is similarly painted). Dora (Nora Velázquez), another working “girl” with a demented, cross-dressing (wearing her work clothes), on-her-dole husband, Max (Alejandro Suárez), has a slut of a daughter (appropriately named Jezebel) in need of attention and cash to buy a phone. Dysfunction abounds.
The two ladies, old friends with sagging old bodies adrift in a world of worries, commiserate on life, growing resentful of the crumbs tossed their way. Recollections of how they scammed their customers in the good old days surface. While dusting off their memories, they are inspired into a new plan involving the pint-sized celebrities, who become the undercards in this scheme as the film passes the hour mark. A few moments later, Bleak Street further lives up to its title, as murder, misery, and a mother’s call for justice take center stage.
At times Bleak Street felt like an earthy twist of Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic Freaks, a hotel room scene in which the midgets are being caressed in a matronly manner reminded me of how Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) cared for several of her physically-challenged sideshow wards. There are droplets of knock-out drugs playing a central storyline in both films, too. But while Browning goes for gross-out approach in his early talkie (most audiences were repulsed), Ripstein aims for a grim tone and dark-lit style.
Life is never a bowl of cherries here in this Mexican backwater, a town not unlike the border crossing found in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) or the setting found in Buñuel’s classic Los Olvidados (1950). All women are whores and all men are drunken brutes and slackers. Nearly stealing the show from them is the incredible roving camerawork that follows the underbelly of wrestling and prostitution in the back alley world that is home to Ripstein and his long-time writing collaborator Paz Alicia Garciadiego. Long Steadicam shots are filled with evocative shadows. The film’s fascinating use of chiaroscuro to paint this study of the human condition, warts and all, is just part of Ripstein’s minimalist cinema, one devoid of a music score (except during the end credits, when Basque-born movie star Luis Mariano is heard warbling his early 1950s hit, Mexico).
The slice of life that is Bleak Street is definitely situated on the darker side of the road. It’s unquestionably worth visiting for a reality check.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.