Guatemala’s premier filmmaker makes a quiet exploration of how a man’s life crumbles after his family, employer and church learn about his gay love affair
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Pablo is a successful man by all the society’s conventional patriarchal standards: he has a high-paying career, a beautiful, younger wife Isa, and two lovely children. However, he is also in a relationship with another man. This fact becomes revealed one fateful evening, as an earthquake sends tremors through Guatemala City’s core, and Pablo’s life is forever uprooted. As he loses his job and has his kids taken away from him, Pablo has to choose between his family and the bustling life of openness and unrestricted attraction that he enjoys with his male partner Francisco, a free-spirited massage therapist. The film follows him trying to reconcile his existence, as his family seeks the help of their evangelical church to rid Pablo of his desire.
WHO MADE IT: Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante made his feature film debut and the international breakout with “Ixcanul,” an imaginative film about an indigenous Kaqchikel girl living in the slopes of a volcano. “Temblores” is his second feature, narrowly followed by “La Llorona,” where dictatorship and witchcraft collide.
Notable Guatemalan actor Juan Pablo Olyslager appears as Pablo. His two partners are played by newcomers, Isa by model Diane Bathen, Francisco by designer Mauricio Armas Zebadúa. Meanwhile, María Telón, Bustamante’s indigenous muse who appears in all his films, plays Rosa, the family’s domestic worker.
Pascual Reyes, Bustamante’s favorite throughout his career, is in charge of the film’s affecting score: a Mexican composer, he also fronts the outfit San Pascualito Rey. Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga, another veteran of “Ixcanul,” reprises his role in the production, just like Cesar Dayes, co-editing with Santiago Otheguy.
WHY DO WE CARE: We need all kinds of queer stories, even ones that might, at first sight, seem too quiet, too polished, too internal. As the amount of gay and lesbian humans able to live the majority of their lives openly increases and as we see more and more token queer and trans individuals assume positions of power, it remains a whole different story in many other areas. Not necessarily remote regions, or those lacking resources: patriarchal standards are resilient and omnipresent even in countries where federal law offers equal rights to queer individuals. As long as people will have to face painful decisions to live a peaceful life, as long as systems will keep rejecting any semblance of a difference, the story of Pablo and his family will keep repeating. “Temblores” may not showcase the most pronounced manifestations of homophobia: after all, in this quiet, subdued story, the tremors are within, underground, or beyond the collected surfaces of middle-class people. There are no bias-based crimes, no outright violence. But the way Pablo’s life comes undone as soon as his family and colleagues become aware of his secret relationship is an indignity akin to that of having insults hurled at you, or physical violence inflicted. Because it’s done under cover of civility and propriety, against the backdrop of material stability and middle-class values, and, moreover, with the oversight of the church, the homophobia in “Temblores” becomes a study of how narratives of hate become co-opted by power when it’s advantageous to it.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: Unlike Bustamante’s two other films, “Temblores” is almost free of non-colonial Guatemalan origins: the story of a white-collar man’s outing and the church’s conversion therapy could be happening practically anywhere in the world. And while it sheds the very necessary light on the role that religion plays in the country, it is also through a very narrow stratum of affluent evangelicals. Pablo and his family are all so straight-laced and good at hiding hatred behind pristine facades, that seeing their artificial reality becomes a bit of a drag. This is especially noticeable when their lives are juxtaposed to the colorful life that Francisco leads in his free time, even though it doesn’t get enough screen time. Just as arresting is Rosa, performed by the incredible María Telón, the family’s hired worker, who has to be torn between allegiances to her two bosses, the husband, and the wife, as the family drifts apart. Her world is also in contrast with the polished paleness of luxury and seems to be more accommodating to people, no matter their preference.
The stark contradictions between inhabited worlds transverse the subject of homophobia and become a larger, looming metaphor on the tragic circumstances of colonial influence on Guatemala and other countries with indigenous populations. In fact, compared to Bustamante’s other films, “Temblores” is restrictive, almost claustrophobic, and that makes Pablo’s attempt at escaping all the more tragic and impactful. This, in turn, invites class analysis and opens up the scrutiny of what sacrifices are necessary from the participants to make the conventional bourgeois existence possible: something that doesn’t get discussed enough in cinema, especially in the context of liberal opposition to homophobia. Although it might appear anti-climatic to Western viewers who want to see their expectations of uncivilized gay-bashing reaffirmed on screen, “Temblores” is a much more complex film that elegantly shows the gaping holes in the narratives of civility that are as much necessary to overcome in the struggle for queer acceptance as the outward hate. Thoughtful and staggering, Bustamante’s film portrays the pain and dignity of a private citizen who merely wants some warmth and a dollop of truth but is instead forced to go through an identity split and make the impossible choices.
Director: Jayro Bustamante
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