Already an acclaimed editor on films such as Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light & Post Tenebras Lux and Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, as well as an actress in the former’s Our Time, Natalia Lopez Gallardo can now add “accomplished writer/director” to her impressive CV. Her debut feature-length film Robe of Gems reveals a carefully calibrated sense of tone and place, as well as a penchant for destabilizing her audience. Here, Gallardo has taken what could have been a familiar tale about Mexican drug traffickers and the ways in which everyday violence affects the lives of regular people and shorn it of virtually all traditional plot signifiers, instead imbuing the film with a free-form, quasi-narrative structure that creates a kind of impressionistic tapestry in lieu of a straightforward story. There are several key characters, each of whom periodically becomes the film’s focus before sliding into the background: there is Isabel (Nailea Norvind), an upper-class woman having marital difficulties and who has taken her pre-teen children to live with her mother; Maria (Antonia Olivares), a longtime maid to Isabel’s family (and, it is implied, a de facto mother-figure to Isabel) who also reluctantly works for a gang of narcos; and Adan (Daniel Garcia), a young, wannabe-gangster, in tow with his mother, Roberta (Aida Roa), a local policewoman trying desperately to keep her son on the straight and narrow. And following all this, it’s revealed that Maria’s sister has gone missing at some point in the past, a mystery that becomes the fulcrum which motivates the actions of all the other characters.
But for all this narrative infrastructure, these relationships are only teased out at first; frankly, it’s often impossible to discern exactly who is doing what and/or to what purpose on a strictly scene-by-scene basis. Gallardo frequently begins and ends sequences with shots of the landscape, rendered with sublime beauty by cinematographer Adrian Durazo, as if to situate the action within a broader context. The densely layered soundtrack frequently shifts to different perspectives within the same scene, starting on one group of people before drifting to another, voices and conversations bleeding into each other. Family gatherings around a pool and the placid surfaces therein recall Lucretia Martel’s La Cienaga and The Holy Girl, two films that bear a certain resemblance to Gallardo’s formal concerns here. If Robe of Gems is at times almost frustratingly opaque, then, once one becomes acclimated to Gallardo’s rhythms, it all begins to create a palpable sense of unease; in these capable hands, the audience becomes as unmoored as the characters. What is clear is that each of these people are trapped by circumstances beyond their control, with the absence of Maria’s sister acting as a synecdoche for all the disappeared victims of narcos violence. Isabel herself eventually becomes a victim of this violence, realized in a startling series of events that Gallardo films in discrete long shot — she’s not interested in the graphic nature of these actions, but in their emotional toll. The film ends with a bold, direct address to the audience followed by a cryptic moment featuring someone burning alive while a group of people stand by and silently observe. Is Gallardo implicating the audience? The answer is unclear, although the director’s sympathy for these people rings loud and clear regardless. The result is nothing less than a dreamy, woozy reverie shot through with an abiding fear of how to make one’s way through this world.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2022 — Dispatch 2.