By Gary M. Kramer.
Our Mothers is a somber but powerful drama getting a virtual theatrical release on May 1. Ernesto (Armando Espitia) is a forensic anthropologist in Guatemala, 2018. He is surrounded by death. He assembles a skeleton at work and digs up mass graves. He also listened to witnesses who recount stories of loved ones who have been murdered during the civil war. One woman Nicolasa (Aurelia Caal) from San Cristobal, recounts a story of her late husband Mateo being murdered. When she shows Ernesto a photograph, the young man recognizes his father as a guerrilla soldier, known as “The Boss.” This development prompts Ernesto to investigate—against the advice of his boss and his mother Cristina (Emma Dib)—but he is determined, and what he discovers is more harrowing than he expected.
Writer/director César Diaz won the Camera d’Or and Critics’ Week prizes for his film at Cannes last year. And Espitia gives a fantastic, largely internal performance here, absorbing emotional shocks as Ernesto learns about his father’s past and pursues his investigation. The Mexican actor, who made an auspicious film debut in Heli (Amat Escalante, 2013) and appears in I Carry You with Me (Heidi Ewing, 2020) later this year, spoke about making Our Mothers.
Gary M. Kramer: What did you know about the Guatemalan civil war and atrocities prior to getting this script, and what encouraged you to take this role?
Armando Espitia: I didn’t know anything about it. In Mexico, all the news and information, and popular culture comes from America. We never “look down to the south.” Even though we share the same language, but we don’t share the same popular culture as other Central or Latin American countries, so we don’t have a lot of information on political and social issues. I was very ignorant about Central America and Guatemala.
César asked me that question at the audition and I am asked that question in every interview. I had to educate myself about the recent history of Guatemala and the armed conflicts and the civil war and the genocide. I read about it for three months before we started rehearsing. As for playing the role, I am not at that stage of my career where I can choose characters. But the previous work I’ve done, those films dictate a path for me, so I went to an audition. But the important moment for me was reading the script. It was very powerful, and I knew I wanted this part.
GMK: Ernesto has a difficult job, he’s weary. Your body language and expressions reveal so much of Ernesto’s grief and despair. How did you play someone so jaded, so young?
AE: There was a big book of testimonies that people shared about their experiences with violence and the genocide. It was powerful to read that. It impacted me. I understood very early in the process that this story was about grief and people looking for their lost ones who are looking for a way to close this cycle of grief. I myself, I don’t know why, but I feel I can relate to that issue. It was very human to feel that. They are looking not for justice, but something more internal to end the grief. That is beautiful and human. I understood that doing Ernesto’s job, I had to approach people gently. He’s tired, he doesn’t like the country, or even the people, maybe, but he loves his job and can see himself in every person who reaches out to him to find their lost one.
GMK: Let’s talk about this idea of closure. Do you believe that knowing the truth can provide peace, or is this a socially constructed emotion? There is a benefit to knowing what happened, rather than live wondering.
AE: I agree with that. The certainty is better. I studied thanatology (the study of death and dying) and I learned that even if the facts of the death are so terrible or dramatic, you always wanted to know what happened. That’s why people need to see the corpse when someone dies. You need the certainty. If you don’t know, your mind can distort the image and give you more pain than the truth. Knowing all of this, there is no other way for my character to approach things; he understands what Nicolasa and other women are going through. But he has other interests—going out drinking, having sex, etc. because he needs to stay strong to do this hard job.
GMK: Your character is very good at listening, and that’s the strength of your performance, but there is a physical aspect to Ernesto’s work. How did that inform your performance?
AE: Let me start by talking about the listening. Emma [Dib] was my acting teacher in school and she’s well known in Mexican theater. Having the chance to work with her and listen to her and see how Christina’s gaze changes was a joy for me. I had this sensation of being in a master class playing her son. It was a lesson for me and my character. And with Aurelia [Caal], she’s a non-professional. I saw her auditions and the whole process and met her, and she was a great woman. But watching her trying to act was an interesting process. She taught me different lessons than Emma, but useful ones. I worked in the middle of those two opposites, not just in this film, but in my career as a whole. I’m trying to get into real life and bring my characters to life. But the profound moments in the film is Ernesto listening to them, and that is why.
When I read the script, I saw Ernesto as older, strong and impulsive character. I was trying to play it like a tough guy, very manly. But César took me back more to myself. We tried to use this manly attitude, but my energy is calm and quiet, so we found the strength there. So, I didn’t put much attention on the physical action. Everything Ernesto does, for example, the digging, has a specific process—and I had to learn it and then do it. So, digging the graves was something I had to learn. It’s how my character relates with the space, and that’s an important issue. He doesn’t feel he belongs in the city and he rejects those places. In the countryside, he is more open and happier; he wants to help. He admires the women there. He feels ashamed for what they went through during the civil war.
GMK: How did you construct a backstory for Ernesto and the relationship he had with father?
AE: César and Emma built another story for the father character, but I felt I needed something specific. I used Ernesto carrying a picture of his dad, because he symbolizes the first five years of Ernesto’s life when they lived together and were happy and had a home. For me, more than looking for my dad, whom Ernesto loved, it was more looking for his past and his origins, and that precise moment of when he was happy living with both his parents in a house. This speaks to Guatemalan history. I wonder how a person like Ernesto could experience happiness after all he went through. He doesn’t have an emotional relationship with his mother, given all the pain and suffering they go through. The happiness he is looking for is his past thoughts of his father, his mother, and his homeland.
GMK: What about Ernesto’s bond with his mother? How did you calibrate their relationship?
AE: She’s a very loving mother. All those tender moments exist between the both of them, but they aren’t seen. She was afraid all the time and trying to protect him by hiding facts. That made the relationship between the two of them cold. Although he is grown up, he still lives with her; there’s a necessity that he’s expecting more from her. He can feel that there is more she isn’t saying—and he is right. The reason he pushes her [to talk] is because he could feel there is more he doesn’t know.
GMK: Nicolasa who Ernesto meets provides an interesting foil; she preys on his sympathies and gets him deeper into a situation that magnifies as she reveals more truths as he investigates her case. What are your thoughts about their relationship?
AE: That’s the most interesting thing about the film. We know Ernesto cares for her, because she’s tender, and kind, and indigenous. She has every quality to be loved. She could be an innocent victim, but she’s not. She understands the situation in a very specific way. It’s human how she hides some info because she needs something and she’s going to get it no matter what. She has an urgent need. And it’s funny how she plays those moments.
GMK: The film asks whether you would risk knowing the truth or keep secret to protect a loved one. It’s obviously situational for each person, and we come to understand why Ernesto wants to know, but are you more a truth-seeker, or protector?
AE: In my personal life, I would be a truth seeker. I can’t help myself. I am that way. That’s why I can play Ernesto.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.