In Nudo Mixteco, characters are torn apart and brought together by the combined concerns of labor and trauma: markets are globalized, while individuals evince a panoply of erotic interests, and engage with a bevy of familial conflicts. Cruz’s Mixteca region is, in this way, a veritable “nudo” – a “knot” – that can be tightened or loosened, keeping us together while simultaneously holding us down.
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After having debuted roughly a year ago at the Miami Film Festival, Nudo Mixteco (2021) is being screened at art house venues throughout Mexico at this writing, and as of last month, it can also be streamed on HBO Max. Director Ángeles Cruz’s first feature-length film, Nudo Mixteco has already won various awards at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria International Film Festival, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, and the MOOOV Film Festival in Belgium. At a time characterized by the #MeToo movement, the election of Honduras’ first female president, and the erosion of abortion rights in the United States, Cruz’s ambitious and beautifully shot film underscores the fact that women’s role in society, access to the female body, and the specter of patriarchal social structures all remain crucial issues via politics and via art. As the director herself explained in a recent Washington Post article, the film constitutes an attempt to understand that women have the “right to decide what happens to our territory-body.”
Nudo Mixteco is organized in a tripartite but intertwined manner; sets of characters in three unique chapters quite literally cross each other’s paths in a diminutive Mexican town, the fictional San Mateo. Although a made-up name, San Mateo is indeed based on places encountered throughout Mexico’s Mixteca region – the mountainous northwestern region in the southwest state of Oaxaca – which remains one of the poorest provinces in all of Mexico. Somewhat like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo, or even Juan Rulfo’s Bajío region, the heartbreaking, interpersonal problems recounted in Cruz’s San Mateo point to our collective, universal experience as human beings. In Nudo Mixteco, characters are torn apart and brought together by the combined concerns of labor and trauma: markets are globalized, while individuals evince a panoply of erotic interests, and engage with a bevy of familial conflicts. Cruz’s Mixteca region is, in this way, a veritable “nudo” – a “knot” – that can be tightened or loosened, keeping us together while simultaneously holding us down. Thus, the film may actually dialogue best with a documentary about those who stay behind in rural Mexican towns devastated by NAFTA – Roy Germano’s The Other Side of Immigration (2010). As Nudo Mixteco’s Esteban pithily notes shortly after returning to his hometown, “One doesn’t return because one wants to, buddy.”
The film’s first chapter sees thirty-something María working as a maid far from San Mateo in Mexico City. One day, she receives a telephone call with the news that her mother, Albina, has passed away. María returns to San Mateo in time for the funeral, but is mostly ignored by the town and excoriated by her father, who blames her for her mother’s death. “Thanks to your foolishness, you killed your mother,” her father lambasts her, pointing to María’s lesbian relationship with Piedad, another young woman in San Mateo. As the funeral concludes, María and Piedad decide to leave for Mexico City with the latter’s infant child. At its most lucid, Cruz’s film – in a somewhat Almodovarian vein – asks us to interrogate and reconceptualize what it means to be a family. The film speaks to the vastly different experiences of the LGBTQ community in Mexico, where the legality of gay marriage depends on the state where one resides. As Cruz’s film seems to note, these personal/political possibilities oftentimes correspond to a rural/urban divide, in turn indicative of a larger social trajectory that follows the spread of urbanization in Latin America.
In the film’s second chapter, a middle-aged Esteban arrives on a bus to San Mateo just in time for the town’s annual celebration of its patron saint, whose festivities are seen throughout. Immediately on reaching his hometown, Esteban gets wrapped up in a musical performance, and spends the rest of the afternoon playing his clarinet and drinking with his friend Nato.
When he wakes up the next day, Esteban seeks out his house where his wife, Chabela, along with his mother and two children live. Having lived in the United States for the past three years, Esteban finds a changed home front. His children hardly recognize him, and Chabela has been seeing another man, Juvencio. Cruz’s subtle touches of irony are especially appreciated here. Right before Juvencio enters the scene, effectively establishing him as the proverbial “man of the house,” Esteban refers to his son as such, before giving him a gift: “For the man of the house, I give you a magnificent present.”
After a tense confrontation between Juvencio and Esteban, the latter requests a general assembly in the town square, where the public – in accordance with traditional laws that have been in place since pre-Hispanic times – votes on important matters. In front of various townspeople, while Albina’s funeral cortege passes, Esteban asks the town to intervene in the case of his broken household. When Esteban claims he “needed” to support his family by working stateside, Chabela sharply ripostes that her body “also had needs.” Ultimately, the public assembly decides that Esteban should maintain possession of his house, while Chabela can live a separate personal life, away from him.
The third and final chapter recounts the experiences of forty-something Toña, who works selling backpacks at a stall in the depths of Mexico City’s massive metro system. She keeps an occasional lover, José Luis. This couple represents perhaps one of the healthier relationships we see in the movie, although Toña seemingly reaps little joy from having sex with José Luis; he, in turn, fails to get her to emotionally commit to him. Humorously but perhaps tellingly, José Luis routinely dons a luchador mask during lovemaking sessions, thus underscoring one of the film’s overarching themes: fragile masculinity. One day, she is summoned back to her hometown of San Mateo. There she finds out that her adolescent daughter has been raped by a relative in the family – Uncle Fermín – whose perverse proclivities have been one of San Mateo’s worst-kept secrets. Toña admits to her reticent daughter, “I was just like you are right now,” and thus convinces her to inform authorities of Fermín’s crimes. Fermín is formally charged, and the last scene sees Toña and her daughter sharing a tender moment at the banks of a river running through the countryside. There Toña returns a heavy rock from San Mateo she had taken with her to Mexico City. With the kerplunk of the weighty stone, the pair allegorically unburden themselves from the most depraved kind of toxic masculinity.
Cleverly, Cruz concludes her film with a return to the second story – that of Esteban and his wife, Chabela. Now sitting alone with his mother, Esteban takes stock of his property: “So much for the fucking house,” he laments, before setting it aflame while his mother quietly cries. At a moment when women’s rights are again being more openly discussed throughout Latin America and the region as a whole again begins to look left, Nudo Mixteco tasks us to burn down the shibboleths of patriarchy in hopes of building anew. Within the logic of Nudo Mixteco, it perhaps may be said that masculinity, at least in its most virulent forms, brings about its own destruction.
The film is stunningly shot in stark, dusty, and muted tones that adequately capture the defeated nobility and dysthymic timbre of characters’ lives. In many scenes, the camera angles suggest a significant attention to detail – they constitute attempts to reflect the storyline cinematographically. For instance, at Albina’s funeral, the camera is situated behind María and Piedad as they clasp hands, their grip seen at the bottom of the frame. Looking toward the camera, María’s father stares in anguish at the two lovers, all the while crying over the coffin of his recently deceased wife. The shot, by focusing on the handholding at the bottom of the screen, seems to query the extent to which María and Piedad can form a united front and defend their mutual love. Equally magical are the rambunctious camera movements amid townspeople dancing in San Mateo’s square during the celebrations. Intriguingly, although scenes do take place in Mexico City, viewers are denied the capital’s broad streets, its high-end boutiques, or impressive buildings. The city just exists as a place to earn money, while the emotional center of the film is the small town of San Mateo.
As a final note, we must recognize that crafting a film out of distinct but intertwined chapters is not a novel technique: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros (2000), Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004), and P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) are but a few examples that come to mind. Reviewers at Film Carnage may be correct in finding Cruz somewhat “reticent to meld the stories of its women together more cohesively.” However, closer attention to details in the film – where and how the stories overlap – does yield significant insights. For instance, viewers may miss that Chabela runs into María and Piedad right when each of the characters is fleeing San Mateo – a fact that buttresses the movie’s broader message: There are still small but crucial spaces for women to forge a sense of community – places to reconstruct a sense of home and lines of kinship.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.