J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Ripstein’s Bleak Street

Skid Row looks mostly the same everywhere, but in Mexico City, you can also find down-on-their-luck luchador wrestlers. In the case of “Little Death” and “Little AK,” they are actually Mini-Estrella wrestlers, but do not call them midgets. They identify as Lilliputians. Unfortunately, they are based on real life Mini-Estrella murder victims Alejandro and Alberto Jiminez, so they are in for an abrupt end. At least they go out with their masks on in Arturo Ripstein’s Bleak Street (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Little Death and Little AK do not even take their masks off when they are home with their long suffering, conventionally-sized wives. They act as the “shadows” of full sized luchadors, “Death” and “AK-47.” The AK’s have a good professional the relationship, but not the Deaths.

Life is tough on the Mini-Estrella circuit, but it is even harder for aging prostitutes like Adela and Dora. The former has largely given up on the sex trade, relying instead on her addled mother’s begging bowl. Dora still turns what tricks are available, but finds no love at home from her ingrate daughter or her closeted, transvestite husband. Hoping to get slightly ahead of the game, the sick and tired prostitutes plan to drug and rob the twin Minis when they are hired for their post-bout celebration. They used to roll clients all the time back in the day. Regrettably, they do not realize they need to make certain adjustments to their M.O.

Buñuel’s influence on Ripstein is immediately apparent in the first seconds of Bleak Street. It is also easy to deduce Ripstein’s influence on succeeding generations of Mexican filmmakers, like del Toro, Reygadas, and Plá. This is some dark stuff. Although never scary per se, there is a pronounced element of grotesquery that runs straight through the center of the film. Heck, it might just make Rachel Maddow’s amen corner vote for Donald Trump.

Yet, Ripstein and his screenwriter wife Paz Alicia Garcíadiego are not merely sympathetic towards the wife-beating Mini-Estrellas and the predatory prostitutes. They are overflowing with darkly humanistic love for them. After all, they are all products of their environment—and their cul-de-sac of dashed hopes makes the Dead End Bowery look like Rodeo Drive.

Even though we never see them unmasked, Juan Francisco Longoria and Guillermo López give remarkably physical performances as the Mini-Estrellas. Likewise, Patricia Reyes Spíndola and Nora Velázquez are painfully exposed as the aging street walkers. It is like Ripstein peels back layers of their dignity like an onion, only to find more perseverance beneath.

Somehow, Alejandro Cantú’s black-and-white cinematography makes the ugliness of human nature look absolutely gorgeous. It might sound like a Mexican John Waters film, but it has a closer kinship with the work of Fellini and even Bergman. It is not for all tastes, but it is a major late career auteurist statement from Ripstein, which in its way, is quite invigorating. Recommended for those who appreciate the bizarre and the naturalistic, Bleak Street opens this Wednesday (1/20) in New York at Film Forum.

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