In La Civil’s final shot, Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez) sits on a bench outside her home in Mexico. At the end of a long, fruitless journey to find her kidnapped daughter, she has seemingly become numb to her environment, unbothered by the flies that land on her face and generally broken by the preceding ordeal. The home behind her has seen better days, its present state the result of some mid-film action and an (obvious) symbol of domesticity torn apart. To say that her quest for justice was fruitless is hardly a spoiler; from the outset it is apparent that this is not the sort of film that could end in closure. Or is it? Cielo appears to see something — someone? — her eyes straining before they go wide and she smiles for the first time in over two hours. The camera begins to pan, and the film cuts to black, whatever Cielo saw left to mystery forever. Is it her daughter, unexpectedly returned? Maybe, though that would be far too neat a bow and present a suspect payoff to the film’s thematic concerns. Whoever she sees might suggest continuance and a sliver of hope to which Cielo can cling. As the rest of the film’s events leave her bereft of family and friends, her search for her daughter is her only remaining purpose.
Or, given that the filmmakers are obviously inspired by the story of Miriam Rodríguez, the woman who hunted down and captured the gangsters responsible for her daughter’s kidnapping and was murdered outside her home in 2017, this ending could represent the end of the line for Cielo. In interviews, Belgian director Teodora Mihai has repeatedly cited Rodríguez telling her that she wanted to “kill or die” every morning, so maybe this too is a sort of peace. Either way, the cycle continues unabated. This final cut to black is then in keeping with the film’s general formal strategy of looking away when it comes to violence. In moments like a gunshot execution, Mihai keeps her camera tight on Arcelia Ramírez’s face as the actor reacts to unseen bloodshed. Elsewhere, the violence perpetrated against victims like Cielo’s kidnapped daughter is seen only in aftermath, bodies strewn haphazardly across a morgue or lined up in a hideout for gangsters. The goal is to keep focus on empathizing with Cielo, but raises a vital question: who gets to look away? Cielo, like her inspiration, doesn’t, having no choice but to stare straight ahead. But we the viewers and the outsider director can instead safely watch violence reflected in the eyes and heard in the gasps of the troubled woman to whom the camera so tightly clings. The line between empathy and pity is sometimes blurred by the remove from Cielo’s perspective.
If there’s anything keeping La Civil on the right side of that line, it’s Ramírez’s performance, which conveys bottled rage and frustration without ever boiling over into melodrama. Rarely does she cry, and minor emotional tics, like the end-film smile, are suffused with complicated, sometimes conflicting emotion. If the camera stays on her face for most of the film, it has good reason to. Her best scenes are also the film’s best, those which move past physical violence and put Cielo up against the bad odds of institutional inefficiency and indifference. In police stations, prisons, and even just around the neighborhood, Cielo encounters those who cannot help her or simply won’t, and brushes up against the slow toil of bureaucracy, bristling when her first encounter with the police consists of questions that suggest gaslighting more than anything helpful. While these scenes construct a presentational realism that suffocates without formal trickery — perhaps clarifying what attracted the Dardennes to producing — Mihai’s claim that she wants this film to effect positive social change rings somewhat hollow, presenting little in the way of solutions or even much of a political point. But if the most La Civil asks for is simple empathy, it’s mostly successful.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.