By Yun-hua Chen.

A compelling portrait of not only a society plagued by violence, and one that conditions its members to be indifferent, irresponsive, and numb.”

In Northern Mexico, Cielo’s (Arcelia Ramírez) day starts like any mundane morning. Her daughter Laura lovingly makes her up, jokingly self-compliments their beauty (“like daughter, like mother”), and bickers over whether Laura should get in touch with her estranged father who has left them for a much younger woman. When the gang of the nonchalant and smirky young man El Puma (Daniel Garcia) stops Cielo’s car in the middle of a road and makes sure that she is Laura’s mother, her world is immediately shattered. El Puma demands 150,000 pesos and the truck of her ex-husband Gustavo (Álvaro Guerrero) in exchange for her daughter’s life. Gustavo is skeptical but eventually complies. Two pick-ups of ransom are arranged, but there is still no trace of Laura. Policemen and military convoys ignore Cielo. In a morgue she sees two decapitated young women but neither of them is her daughter. She is then forced to play the detective, trail the cartel members that handles ransom, talks to people who are willingly or unwillingly connected to the gang, and ends up collaborating with the operations of Lieutenant Lamarque (Jorge A. Jimenez). The further she dives into the labyrinthine criminal structure, the deeper she is drawn into the vicious downward spiral, as it seems that the only way to resist the temptation of apathy is to behave like the kidnappers of her daughter.

La Civil is inspired by the real experience of Miriam Rodriguez, whose daughter was abducted in 2012 and whose remains were discovered in 2014. She later became an activist and helped other parents who shared the same experience. As reality can be more gruesome than fiction, Miriam Rodriguez was killed by gunmen who broke into her home on Mexican Mother’s Day in 2017.

Director Teodora Ana Miha first considered making this a documentary seven years ago when she started to investigate the subject matter together with novelist Habacuc Antonio De Rosario, who grew up on the Mexican border with the US and wrote a lot on the drug war. It is thus no surprise that the film’s immersive quality through the closeness with the character permeates the air. Mihai has a keen interest in women whose strength comes from isolation; while in her documentary Waiting for August (2014), a teenage girl is left to raise her six siblings in Romania, here, Cielo is a one-woman team vis-à-vis organized crime.

A Bucharest-born filmmaker having studied in the US and living in Belgium, Teodora Ana Mihai brings an outsider’s perspective to the subject matter and highlights what is universal in a story that is not exactly new to the audience. With the involvement of contemporary film masters including the Dardenne brothers who are characterized for their social realist dramas, Christian Mungiu who is skilled in family and social-division dramas, and Michel Franco who unflinchingly probes power dynamics and socio-political structures, La Civil is rightly affiliated with a cinematic tradition that favors a natural look and explores human plight with sensitivity and respect.

La civil (2021) | MUBI
“A compassionate portrayal of a person who has lost the most precious thing on earth and hence musters up the courage to stand up against cartels.”

Director of photography Marius Panduru’s camera stays close to Cielo and breathes with her. During the daytime the light in Durango is soft and eerily beautiful, whereas the night shots approximate Rubens’ chiaroscuro effects. Each take lasts as long as necessary so that Cielo’s sense of time remains relatable throughout the film and her expression of emotions pulsates with authenticity. Calmly observing without judgment, the camera seems to seek a crevice between good and evil. While La Civil alternates between action thriller, family drama, and poetic cinema, it is well-paced and complex. Its multifacetedness is only made possible thanks to the tour-de-force of Arcelia Ramirez’s embodiment of Cielo. As the heartbeat of the film, she is both fragile and strong, transforming from a common housewife to a militant who doesn’t hesitate to beat up a possible perpetrator. One of the film’s most powerful moments is the conversation between Cielo and El Puma in prison. The pace is slow, and their conversation futile. While El Puma poses as a victim and denies any wrongdoing, he shows no Hollywoodian repentance, and Cielo finds no closure.

That’s what is unique in this film, not shying away from leaving questions unanswered. Were Gustavo’s mistress and old friend involved in the kidnap? Why was only a rib of Laura found in the pit? What role did Laura’s boyfriend play? We are as much in the dark as the families of those who are kidnapped in real life. The film refuses easy solutions outright, making these unanswered questions the poignant reminder of all the ongoing tragedies.

A compassionate portrayal of a person who has lost the most precious thing on earth and hence musters up the courage to stand up against cartels, La Civil recreates the claustrophobic physical and mental space with no escape. Cartel leaders and military commanders come and go, but the prevalent existence of random violence remains a constant.

To remain a victim or to risk becoming a perpetrator under such a circumstance – Cielo’s decision is rather clear. Meanwhile, by encompassing people in Cielo’s surroundings into the narrative, it is also about the banality of evil; the neighbors on the street who keep their doors shut when cartel members shoot Cielo’s house with machine guns and set fire to her car; the mother of a kidnapped young man collaborates with the leaders of the opposite cartel; the girlfriend of El Puma rejoices at a mysterious bouquet of flowers but takes no notice of her boyfriend’s criminal activities. What La Civil compellingly paints is not only a society plagued by violence, but one that conditions its members to be indifferent, irresponsive, and numb. Where the families with kidnapped children are forced to take matters into their own hands, everyone is an island, and violence bears more violence.

La Civil will open at New York’s Film Forum on 3 March.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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