Repressed emotions, lingering fears and a painful, long-overdue confrontation regarding a father’s abandonment of his wife and daughters under a cloud of suspicion are the complex elements at the heart of the streamlined, efficiently rendered Cenizas, literally ashes, Juan Sebastian Jacome’s follow-up to his Ruta de la luna, which also tracked a fractured relationship between a parent and child and leaned on nature as a way to mirror the relationship’s status.
In a social climate that is making it easier to discuss, and deal with, sexual abuse and the lingering thorniness of allegations (“Innocent until proven guilty” has become a clarion call amid the requisite accusations and spin of witch hunts in the wake of #MeToo), a strong showing on the festival circuit should be a given. Targeted urban centers in Europe and North America with Spanish-language markets should line up to take a look as well, particularly given the timely and simultaneously timeless subject matter. And as Cenizas is the kind of intimate, sensitive family drama that plays well in close quarters, streaming outlets and VOD are a distinct possibility.
The kind of low-key family drama that never goes out of style.
The film opens with a long, deliberate shot of daylight breaking over a lush stretch of Ecuador. Outside an ordinary looking apartment it’s “snowing,” as previously dormant volcano Cotopaxi threatens eruption by spewing ash all over Quito. It’s a deliberate, demanding shot that hints at what’s to come, and that the ashes of more than just the volcano are going to make their presence known. The apartment belongs to Caridad (Samanta Caicedo), who, living as she does inside the blast zone, pushes aside lingering bitterness towards her artist father Galo (Diego Naranjo) and reaches out to him for help. Over the course of a day, Caridad toggles back and forth between a child’s craving for paternal connection and seething rage toward her estranged father; it’s been 14 years since he walked out on her, her “crazy” mother (as Galo sees it) and her damaged sister, now in a hospital in Bogota. As the day wears on and details of the reasons behind Caridad’s anger trickle out, Jacome accomplishes the nearly impossible in making us empathize with an emotional quagmire that should be black and white, but when dealing with family is not.
It’s easy to see why producer Andrew Hevia took on writer-director Jacome’s second film, as Cenizas is marked by the same intimate tone, keenly observed emotions and anticipatory tone of the former’s Oscar-winning effort Moonlight. Like that film (though a world apart subject-wise), Jacome takes his time hinting at the turbulent relationship between Caridad and Galo, and though it becomes clear that rumors of abuse are what really tore the family apart, Caicedo renders Caridad’s struggle to reconcile her feelings for her wounded sister and her father in an accumulation of little moments rather than sweeping strokes. Her performance dovetails nicely with the muddled half-truths and anxious attempts at healing that inform how they relate to each other and those around them, chiefly her boyfriend Arturo (Pavel Almeida) and Galo’s second wife, Julia (Juana Estrella). Each has to deal with the fallout of the family trouble, and each is resigned to living with a partner that is always at a distance.
Not much happens in Cenizas; the film is a clinic in internal storytelling about people, not events, with Caicedo and Naranjo slipping into an organic, lived-in rhythm that works for the personal scope of the film. Though the imagery of the violence of an erupting volcano and the resulting ashes can be a little on the nose, Simon Brauer’s intimate hand-held camerawork and lean compositions (ironically, wide shots of the deadly Cotopaxi in the distance are the film’s most beautiful sequences) and Jacome’s faith in showing, not telling (and knowing when the story is done) raise Cenizas above its modest station.
Production company: Abaca Films, Rain Dogs Cine
Cast: Samanta Caicedo, Diego Naranjo, Juana Estrella, Estela Alvarez, Pavel Almeida
Director-screenwriter: Juan Sebastian Jacome
Producers: Irina Caballero, Andrew Hevia, German Tejeira
Executive producer: Irina Caballero
Director of photography: Simon Brauer
Production designer: Emilia Davila
Costume designer: Carmen Davila Falconi
Editor: Julian Goyoaga
Music: Xavier Muller
Casting: Julia Silva
World sales: FiGa Films