On July 8, the Virtual Summer Film Festival, sponsored by the Stanford Global Studies department, screened director Li Cheng’s “José” (2018), a movie about a gay Guatemalan teen struggling with romantic love and familial acceptance. The festival organizers chose this film to fit into the general theme of the festival, “Love in the Time of Cinema.” Since the only Latin American film I had seen was Alonzo Cuaron’s gorgeous “Roma,” I was excited to further explore this genre of cinema.
Living in a country where 45% of the population identifies as Catholic, José (Enrique Salanic) faces intense homophobia from his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota), who is economically dependent on her son. Unsurprisingly, José makes his romantic liaisons secret, meeting other gay men on dating apps only to leave in the morning to appease his mother. When he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), he falls deeply in love with him, but José cannot leave his mother behind to follow Luis to the US.
While the initial tension between José and his mother on his sexuality was expected, the underlying complexity of their relationship breathed life into the film and Mota’s character. At the start of the film, she takes her son to church and uses religion to justify her homophobia, as any stereotypical religious parent would do. Later in the movie, in a scene where she fears for José’s safety and is praying for his return, José’s mother says she does not care about her son’s sexuality if he returns safely. Their complicated, mother-son balancing act between love and disappointment is devoid of dramatic sappiness — it feels real and difficult. This stems from the realistic performances by both Herrera and Mota: Cheng cast first-time actors for the roles in his films.
This sense of realism is heightened by Cheng’s style of cinematography. As his characters go about their lives — walking around the city, working and hooking up — the camera follows them, making the audience feel as if they are in the movie, watching the events firsthand as they unfold, rather than feeling like the scenes occur in a pre-planned manner, curated for a wider audience.
Another element that adds to the realism is the sparingly used music score. Cheng chooses to add music only at key moments in the plot, rather than overwhelming ambient sounds with overtly purposeful artificial ones.
The film abruptly ends as José boards a bus to an unknown destination after leaving his grandmother’s house. This provides the audience with no sense of closure. They do not know if he will ultimately choose his mother or Luis. I can only hope that closure awaits him at the end of his journey.
The Virtual Film Festival continues its screenings with “Eat Drink Man Woman” on August 5, “Cold War” on August 12, “Maqbool” on August 19, “Tel Aviv on Fire” on August 26 and “Chicken with Plums” on September 2. For further details, click here.
Contact Abigail Shane at abigaillshane ‘at’ gmail.com.