Review of Queer Lion winner: 75th Annual Venice Film Festival, José

January 30, 2020

 

 

“José (magnetic newcomer Enrique Salanic) lives with his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) in Guatemala City, where they survive on her selling sandwiches at bus stops and with him working at a local restaurant. In this poor and sometimes dangerous country dominated by conservative Catholic and Evangelical Christian religion, living as an openly gay man is hard for José to imagine. His mother has never had a husband, and as her youngest and favorite son, on the edge of manhood at 19-years old, she is determined to hold on to him. Reserved and private, José fills his free moments playing with random hook ups arranged on his phone apps and meeting in clandestine sex houses. When he meets the attractive and gentle Luis (Manolo Herrera), a migrant from the rural Caribbean coast, an unexpected romance blooms with more emotion than José has ever felt. As he is thrust into new passion and pain he is pushed into never before self-reflection. Will his reluctance to take a leap of faith lead to happiness?”

 

 

José is a suspenseful film that does very little dialogue but speaks volumes through meaningful body language and parallels between different story points. Through these two techniques and skillfully crafted scenes that are packed with emotional suspense, the film expertly crafts a commentary on love for younger generations.

 

In José, there is very little dialogue between the characters, meaning the actors and the settings must speak for themselves; a task the filmmakers do not fail on. Throughout the film we are not privy to José’s thoughts or goals other than to find love. Prior to meeting Luis, José is silent, reserved, and guarded. When he is with others, he’s often seen either staring at his phone or staring off into the distance, lost in his own thoughts. The visual of the world going on without you as you are trying to discover yourself in secret is a very real and raw thing that I believe every gay man can relate to despite the vastly various experiences homosexuals feel. It’s an isolating experience that can be close to self-destruction as you fight to keep yourself hidden from the world while lying to those you love.

 

But when José meets Luis, who he thinks is the love of his life, he discovers a part of himself that he’s never experienced before; a normalcy in who he loves, and a safety to be himself. We see him smiling and laughing. The sex he has with Luis is filled with meaningful conversations, instead of empty small talk. It’s fun and exciting, mimicking what it feels like to go through falling in love for the first time, making the film relatable to viewers who are not LGBT+.

 

José adventures to a place far away, a meadow protecting them with tall grass and spotlighting them with sunlight. Suddenly, José becomes distracted from the things he has in his old life. His journey from the busy, crowded, and artificial city life to the tranquil, spacey, and natural outdoors echoes José’s own new journey of self-reflection, to one that is more open and freer and innocent, allowing the both of them to explore their sexuality. 

When they return from their little adventure, Luis offers an escape for José—to run away together and live a life where they can be free away from everything and everyone. Luis even offers to build a house for them to live in. But José declines, and Luis leaves without him, thus thrusting viewers into the second part of the movie and directly into the two pillars of conflict for the film; What is José willing to do to be happy in an environment that suppresses who he truly is? And will his mother’s love outlast her confusion of her son’s sexuality?

 

Ultimately, José decides to reject Luis’ offer of freedom because José believes he can’t just abandon his mother. As viewers, one might question why José would even stick up for his mother, considering she has been practically “praying the gay away.” But her prayers were never an attack on her son or wishing pain upon him or a belief her son doesn’t deserve happiness. Her emotions are clearly more complicated.

 

Throughout the film, José’s mother prays for her son to return to her safely when he runs away from Luis. More importantly, she prays he will not leave her, hinting of her own past trauma of José’s father leaving her. Although José’s mother prays that he will see the light and errors of his “homosexual lifestyle,” her love for José ultimately does outshine her confusion of his sexuality and you can tell. Her prayers towards his safety and her fears of him leaving her demonstrate that she acknowledges the dangers of being a homosexual man in Guatemala and that José is not safe. Thus, her prayers are not actually to convert José out of spite or hatred, but fear that her son will be harmed for who he is. More importantly, she is on her own journey to understanding and accepting José’s sexuality.

 

Secondly, José’s journey in the first and second parts of the film parallel one another, but although the first part is discovering love with another person, the second part of the film focuses on finding love with oneself.

 

The first part follows José going through meaningless hookups to explore his gay identity which eventually leads to him hooking up with Luis and discovering his first love, and then eventually losing him in the end. The second part we follow José through meaningless hook ups that don’t give him satisfaction anymore, finds a guy who loves him, but José doesn’t love him back, goes on a quest to find Luis, and, in the end, ends up discovering himself. By retracing the steps of his, in a way, former life before love. In other words, he can retread the same path he’s treaded before, but he’ll never fit again in the same footsteps he’s left behind.

 

In José’s conversation with his grandma, she explains how José’s grandfather left her and José’s mother, and how she looked for him, and, after not being able to find him, gives up on finding love with another man. José asks why she never looked for love again and she just shrugs, implying that she’s given up out of fear her next love will leave her too. After, José parallels his grandmother in searching for Luis. At first it appears that he gives up on his search for Luis and new love. He, in the end, discovers another man and decides to ride off in the distance, but he’s reluctant, cautious, yet more comfortable with himself. The ending is left open purposely for viewers to imply their own ending based off what they’ve just seen and their own experiences in life.

 

In the end, José’s decision to try to find love again as opposed to giving up on love represents an end to a vicious cycle of dependence or toxic ideas of what love is. By José venturing out into the unknown once again, and this time with a sense of purpose and an idea for what he wants, he is participating in the work It takes to build not only a relationship with possibly another man, but a relationship with himself that will, most certainly, last a lifetime.

 

The film premieres on January 31st, February 7th, and February 14th in select theatres and locations. You can find more information here, for tickets, specific dates, and locations: http://www.outsiderpictures.us/movie/José/

 

 

 

 

I had the chance to ask a few questions about some of the complicated emotions and motivations of the few characters from writer-producer George F. Roberson, director Li Cheng, and actor of José Enrique Salanic.

 

George F. Roberson and director Li Cheng:

 

Q: After watching the ending of the film, I was left saddened that José couldn’t find Luis. But after sitting on it for a while and considering José’s talk with his grandmother, I couldn’t help but be optimistic about the ending and the implications of José riding off into the distance with another man. How did you interpret the ending and what sort of message do you think viewers can take away from it?

Yes! This is some people’s initial reaction, and even some people email to volunteer to “sign up” to help look for Luis - mostly from Asia screenings (the film’s already premiered in 50+ countries worldwide, and now starting in USA theatres), where romance is seemingly still doing better than other places

Since it’s an international art-film (not a Hollywood-style film or telenovela-style film), the ending is more open (in Havana, Cuba audience remarked approvingly, “it’s a French ending”), so it can be more personal for each individual to watch and feel and connect and decide for themselves

To us when he randomly grabs a ride at the end, it’s just an act of kindness from the guy with the moto - though one person we spoke to saw it as a new beginning to look for another lover, but many take it metaphorically and more broadly as a new beginning: having been transformed by the power of first-love, he’ll keep going and searching and find out what mix of things life has to offer

Most people feel hope, contemplation and inspiration at the end --tender advice from grandma, taking to the road searching alone, randomly meeting and observing other young people, visiting the Mayan ruins to receive place-wisdom and perspectives (although purposely not stated in the film, José is Mayan guy - but largely stripped of his Mayan heritage, like many indigenous people, and for a variety of reasons), and accepting the help and care of strangers, etc.

and that most people understand, that honestly speaking, in one of the roughest and poorest countries in the world one needs to temper their sense of breaking out: these are already huge steps for José in these contexts, and although his future is far from certain it seems that love will guide him and somehow he’ll be ok. And likewise, metaphorically, “José” as the most common male name, might also emerge as an “every person” - a modest hero charting Guatemala’s uncertain yet massive youth culture into a new, brighter, more open future

also the locations at the end of the film are crucial and iconic locations for Guatemalan and Mayan people: those ruins are sacred space and are remains from the Mayan peak times a thousand years ago; the wrecked railroad was built with great hope and effort a hundred years ago but with many negative outcomes for most people (for complex reasons), and now lost in disrepair - it was destroyed in a massive earthquake (epicenter was right there where José rides off) in 1976 that killed over 20,000 people and affected millions. Although most won’t know this history we tried to present it all in a way that it could still sink in even without direct knowledge

Q: Out of all the characters in the film, I found your character (José’s mom) to be the most complex. At first, I could see viewers getting angry at José’s mother for trying, in a way, to “pray the gay away.” But looking deeper into the words behind her prayers, it seems more that she’s acknowledging the danger of being a homosexual man in Guatemala and that could mean losing her son. Could you elaborate on the kind of head space you needed to put yourself into to get into such a complicated character, or perhaps I’m overthinking it?

No, we don’t think you’re overthinking it - quite the contrary. One audience member asked if José’s mom was the villain? We say no. From our view she is rightfully concerned about José’s sexuality, it is a highly homophobic (and violent) public culture, but she’s also on her way to acceptance of it.  While her bigger “problem” is that she loves José so much and tries to hold on a little longer before he too leaves to make is own life, and she also depends on their pooled income to even just scrape by in one of the poorest countries in all of the America’s - 59% in poverty, 25% in extreme poverty

Q: At first I think viewers of the film will be quick to brush Luis off as the bad guy in the film, especially since he gives José an ultimatum of his mother or himself. But can you really blame Luis for wanting a better and safer future for himself?

We’ve not heard people ID’ing Luis as the villain, but can see your point. Conversely, in our extensive research and interviews we constantly heard the anguish of disappearing men and disappearing husbands: phones get stolen so contact is lost, family moved on, lost their job so hit the road, got beat up or killed, couldn’t afford phone service, joined a migrant caravan to USA, got called away to help the family in some other city, found a new love, started a 2nd or 3rd family, etc., etc.

If you notice, all the men disappearing in the film, not just Luis: where’s José’s mom’s past partners? José’s grandmother’s past partners - she tells us a bit in the dialogue, lost in the war, lost to another woman

Q: I noticed that Luis’ name is not ever stated in the film. Do you know if that was intentional?

Yes, it’s intentional - to suggest, in part, how common the issue of the disappearing man is.

 

Enrique Salanic:

 

Q: After watching the ending of the film, I was left saddened that José couldn’t find Luis. But after sitting on it for a while and considering José’s talk with his grandmother, I couldn’t help but be optimistic about the ending and the implications of José riding off into the distance with another man. How did you interpret the ending and what sort of message do you think viewers can take away from it?       

                                      

 Yes, at the end we see José riding off with another man. Yet, José does keep his distance from this man from his body posture as they ride off. So, in a way, José is learning how to grow out from his recent loss. The ending also left me saddened but throughout the film we see José being resilient among the chaos that exists in his life, his family, his surroundings and his responsibilities. So, the ending is also about hope and strength. If there is someone experiencing solitude and loss in their lives, know that they are not alone and despite distance strength can be found. Yes, sometimes the world is full of darkness and trickery but beauty can be found if one is willing to look for it. José, if he has not yet, realizes that he needs to choose to move on and keep on growing. 

 

Q: Out of all the characters in the film, I found the mother character to be the most complex. At first, I could see viewers getting angry at José’s mother for trying, in a way, to “pray the gay away.” But looking deeper into the words behind her prayers, it seems more that she’s acknowledging the danger of being a homosexual man in Guatemala and that could mean losing her son. Is the mother a complicated character, and what are your thoughts on this?

 

Yes, she is complex. As any mother she has conflicts: External and internal pressure that needs to be solved. Externally from what is expected from her (what to think and what to do) such as “praying the gay away” to make him “normal”; pressure that comes from religion and a conservative society. Internally, she is doing her best to keep him safe, love José in the best way she knows how to do it. She might be shocked about him being gay but having him closer makes her secured. Secured because she can protect José with her advices and having an eye on him, among others. By her actions we noticed that she loves José no matter who he is. She is love incarnated, a mother. 

 

Q: At first I think viewers of the film will be quick to brush Luis off as the bad guy in the film, especially since he gives José an ultimatum of his mother or himself. But can you really blame Luis for wanting a better and safer future for himself?

 

No. No one is guilty for wanting a better life. We all want to be happy and have a fulfilling life whatever that means to each of us. Luis and José had their discrepancies on what a better and safer future looked like. It was a matter of perspective. But we got to realize that wanting a better life means sacrificing other things that are important to us and sometimes there are many things we cannot control that might work against our goals. José deals with such ideas and despite his reality goes on to look for a better and safer future by moving on.

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