It’s rare when a debut feature strikes the perfect balance of ingredients, and especially rare when it does so in a distinctive and memorable way. Writer-director Juan Pablo González achieves precisely this in Dos Estaciones. His first narrative film is at once a vivid portrait of a place and its people, an unsentimental ode to the art and craft of tequila-making, a damning depiction of the results of globalizing economic policies, and an exquisite character study, with Teresa Sánchez delivering a performance of potent restraint.
As María García, the steely yet magnanimous proprietor of a once-thriving tequila distillery in western Mexico, Sánchez, in her first lead role in a feature, is riveting from first scene to last. She’s one of just a few professional actors in the central cast, with many of the movie’s non-pros playing versions of themselves. Working mainly in González’s hometown of Atotonilco El Alto, in the highlands of the state of Jalisco, the helmer and his co-writers, Ana Isabel Fernández and Ilana Coleman, invited the actors’ collaboration on the dialogue. That choice, combined with the inclusion of unscripted footage, imbues Dos Estaciones with a particular authenticity, one that fuses a documentary sensibility and artful storytelling.
A fine distillation, intoxicating and sobering.
González’s film — which received the True/False festival’s True Vision Award in March — is spellbinding and urgent, an on-the-ground account of the repercussions of NAFTA, almost 30 years after that trade agreement transformed the North American business terrain. Through María’s story, he questions the meaning of success on an uneven playing field, and the devastating effects of greed and unchecked competition.
The sense of place is powerful, whether the director takes us into the fields where the jimadores harvest the agave, or traces the plants’ fermentation process through the distillery’s machinery, or simply invites us to observe the land and the sky. This is a drama whose attention to detail, in those visuals, in the words and silences between characters, in the layers of sound beneath the dialogue or sometimes in its stead — birdsong and insects, radio voices and tunes, the plink of casino slot machines — restores meaning to such overused terms as “artisanal” and “community.” And it quietly counters rural stereotypes in its matter-of-fact portrayal of a spectrum of queer identities and their everyday acceptance.
María is an esteemed businesswoman, a boss of exacting tastes and standards, who has expanded upon the achievements of her father and his father before him to build an elegant distillery (the location is a facility run by González’s family). The portrait that hangs behind her desk is no conventional tribute but a work that’s striking in its primitive modernism: an image of her, with her close-cropped hair and intense gaze, painted in bold strokes.
María lives alone. Her staff includes a housekeeper (Ana Rosa Fuentes Estrada), a “right-hand man” (José Luis Flores) to oversee distillery logistics and an adviser on matters of horticulture (professional actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Whatever her personal longings — and they do find expression, indelibly, over the course of the story — motherhood definitely isn’t one of them. “Too many children,” she comments, without irony or apology, at a kid’s birthday party.
It’s there that she meets Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), who has moved to the area after being laid off from her job in the management offices of another tequila factory. Struggling to make ends meet, María could use someone with Rafaela’s know-how, but, in the midst of “a serious agave crisis,” the best she can offer the young woman is partial salary plus room and board. A deal is struck.
The crisis challenging María and other independent tequila makers is twofold. There’s the urgent matter of a fungus that’s destroying the agave crops, and the ongoing encroachment of deep-pocketed foreign brands, pushing family businesses to the sidelines of an increasingly lucrative and celebrity-bedazzled industry.
As María tries to keep the company afloat, her employees are, for a while at least, understanding and patient about the reduction in pay. Brief interactions reveal the years-long bonds: She knows everyone by name, knows what’s going on in their lives and, on payday, she personally hands each of them a check. What’s also revealed is her importance to the local economy, not only as an employer but as a benefactor. Among those she’s helped is salon owner Tatín. Played by Atotonilco resident Tatín Vera, an openly transgender hairdresser, Tatín provides an engaging throughline in the story, emblemizing the community’s resilience. Her visit to a nearby casino with her mother, where she meets soft-spoken Fernando (José Galindo), is a gentle romantic interlude.
For María, matters of the heart are less open and simple. Her attraction to Rafaela is evident in the glances she steals, and how she delights in showing her the local sights. Although Rafaela still calls her “ma’am” in the office as they pore over the debt-laden books, there’s an enigmatic intimacy between them. There’s also a line that María apparently can’t bring herself to cross.
It’s a good 40 minutes into the film that María’s tough façade breaks, if only for a fleeting instant: She smiles, really smiles. Later, a brief sequence that finds the two women inadvertently in the kitchen at the same time is an absolute stunner. At María’s suggestion, they dance to a song on the radio. “I’ll lead,” she says, her confidence and pleasure something to behold. When Rafaela asks her where she learned her moves, her answer is breathtaking, a two-word testament to the strength, smarts and aloneness that have defined her life.
That scene is viewed through the narrowed frame of a doorway, a key example of the ways that cinematographer Gerardo Guerra helps to shape the narrative. Symmetrical compositions emphasize María’s central position in the town as well as her separateness. The outstanding camerawork is just as attuned to the otherworldly beauty of the agave cones, the sweep of the landscape and the factory’s place in it — at times of relative calm and in the aftermath of disaster. (The filmmakers captured the fallout of a 2018 storm; most of the narrative sequences were shot in late 2020, but the process of filming began earlier and took place intermittently over a four-year period).
The thoughtful, unhurried rhythms of the editing by Lívia Serpa and the director are essential to the movie’s hypnotic dramatic language, as is Carmina Escobar’s ethereal score, which taps into the beauty at hand and also María’s rising rage over her predicament.
María is an unforgettable character, brought to vivid, mysterious life by Sánchez (The Chambermaid, Where Are Their Stories?), who was awarded a special jury prize at Sundance. The performance is punctuated by remarkable moments when the character’s tightly contained emotions, and her simmering disdain for “fucking Americans,” rise to the surface. Those moments grow longer, more deliberate, more destructive. Sánchez and González make this inscrutable pillar of Atotonilco understandable, in all her accomplishments and all her contradictions.