Director: Fernanda Valadez (Mexico, Spain). Year of Release: 2021
Jesús and Rigo leave the family home in Guanajuato, Central Mexico to look for work over the border in Arizona. They never reach their destination. When their mothers report them missing, the police say that there’s nothing than they can do because, although at least one of them is underage, they left with their parents’ permission. Eventually, the mothers are shown a ring binder full of this week’s photos of discovered corpses. Rigo is in there, but Jesús is still missing.
Jesús’s mother Magdalena tries to retrace his steps. She finds his bag which had left behind when a bus arrived empty in the station. People working in the station are reluctant to openly speak to Magdalena, but someone gives her information through the door of the ladies’ toilets. On this anonymous advance he visits a woman at the local migrant hostel.
Magdalena is initially advised to pack up and go home. She has little money, though she manages to borrow some from her friend back in Guanajuato. But she has been told to seek out an old man who was found in a bad state on October 15th, the day that the bus carrying Jesús and Rigo had some sort of accident. He lives the other side of the country, but Magdalena is persistent.
In the course of her travels, she bumps into Olivia, whose son has been missing for 4 years, and Miguel, who has recently been deported from the USA. Miguel is looking for the mother that he hasn’t seen for years, but when they arrive at her house, it is empty, presumably a victim of the local militia. The livestock in the stable are now putrefying corpses, fed on by flies. Miguel is full of remorse that while he was working in the States, he rarely sent anything back to his poor mother.
When they are attacked by local militia men, Miguel is shot, and Magdalena flees, getting a boatman to row her to the village where the witness from Bus 670 lives. He speaks no Spanish, but they communicate through an interpreter, with subtitles for the audience, until his final, harrowing, story which is told in his local language, and we are just left to envisage the horror. At the end of the film, we see distressing images which presumably correspond to his story.
All of this sounds very worthy – it is very worthy, but I was never really engaged. This is a slow film in which something happens, and then something else happens … and then nothing happens for a sustained period of time. There is little plot or character development. Mercedes Hernández is heart breaking a Magdalena, but she has little to do in the film except suffer and wander around Mexico in search of someone who can relieve her pain.
I ended up feeling complete sympathy for Magdalena but very little empathy. Maybe this would have been different if she’d got a little angrier. Instead she humbly accepts everything that she is put through. All she wants is to know what happened to her little boy. I was left wondering what exactly the point of the film was? What is it trying to tell us? That the world is unjust? Well, yes, but for me this was ultimately not quite entertaining, not quite a call to action.
Despite the German title (what happened with bus 670?) there is little mystery here. Jesús and Rigo are victims of Mexico’s drug wars, further faceless statistics, victims of bandits who stop buses, plunder their contents, and execute the witnesses. There is no real puzzle here – we know whodunnit, generically at least. And we know whydunnit, or at least we know that in a country ravaged with hopelessness, this sort of thing will continue to happen.
At times, the film appeals to supernatural reasons – the devil himself makes an appearance, and there is a general sense of magical realism that somehow make it feel less grounded. While we are permanently aware of the grief and desperation that Magdalena feels, it somehow feels that no-one is called to account – no-one outside the realms of Hell at least.
I feel a little guilty not liking this film more than I do. It is obviously made by Good People and on the right side. It is also stunningly filmed against a beautiful landscape and seems to have found an audience, with most reviews being highly positive. I hope it does well, and that viewers get something out of it that somehow eluded me.