Helena practices her English singing “Jack and Jill went up the hill,” while trying on her dying mother’s clothes. But this is not a sign that Helena (Irene Azuela) is ready to move beyond her grief and leave her mother’s bedside. Instead, she continues to enclose herself in their home, assuming all major responsibility and heartache in taking care of her mother, Eugenia (Claudette Maillé), a former singer. Quemar Las Naves, the first-feature film of director Francisco Franco and Audience Choice winner at last year’s Morelia International Film Festival, takes Helena’s own lack of ability to move forward and topples that with her brother Sebastián’s heartache as well.
The two teenagers move around the house like awkward chess pieces. The older sister moves about quickly, loudly, shouting at anything and everything that gets in the way of her happiness, everything except her mother. Her timid brother, played by Ángel Onésimo Nevares, borders between popular and outsider depending on the crowd he’s hanging out with. He seems to be pretty well-accepted by others at school, like the popular but not too smart Ismael (Ramón Valdez), who in the beginning gladly tugs on him like a prize he’s won. But suddenly, when outsider Juan (Bernardo Benítez), a sort of Mexican “rebel without a cause” comes to town, Ismael is threatened by his free-spirited ways seducing Sebastián. Soon their outings to the country and imaginations of the sea begin to change the calm Sebastián everyone was so used to. Helena is also threatened by her brother’s bursts and only wants him to help her with taking care of their mother. The brother and sister have difficulties communicating in the beginning and the movie takes a trip with them from the climax of their mother’s illness.
Franco, whose previous credits was in television before this first-featured film and does a well-enough job. He plants a world muddy enough to make you feel lost and when you want to get up and say “To Hell With THIS!” you get this inclination to want to look through the mess. Scenes between Azuela and Nevares are powerful and disturbing at the same time. Azuela has such a force coming through the screen that you’ll want to hate her and love her all at the same time (she won countless acting awards in Mexico for her powerful performance). Nevares, who is also a first-timer, does a an excellent job with the timid boy struggling to break loose from everything that has been tying him down. Supporting cast members provide a humor to the madness that goes on between the brother and sister, giving a little uplift to the gloom that exists among the two.
An excellent plus to this movie is the music! Mexican pop singer Julieta Venegas (who was just packed Central Park’s Summerstage a few weeks ago), sings several songs in the soundtrack, composed and produced by Joselo Rangel (Cafe Tacvba’s guitar player) and Alejandro Giacomán. Go see this movie, maybe it doesn’t answer the question of finding yourself, but it’s not set out to do that. It’s called “Quemar Las Naves” not “Encuentrate!” To find one’s “self” you gotta leave all else behind first.
Quemar Las Naves shows as part of the 12th Annual International Latino Film Festival, more info in our Cine Listings.