Saturday, 22 September 2012

Of buffaloes and earwigs in Guillermo Arriaga’s “El Búfalo de la Noche”

Director, and acclaimed writer of films like Amores Perros and Babel, Oscar nominated Guillermo Arriaga penned and co-produced the mexican drama "El Búfalo de la Noche" [Eng. Title: The Night Buffalo] based on his own novel. Jorge Hernandez Aldana made his directorial feature-film debut with this, and bore the brunt of all the criticism - few people had kind words to say about this film. However, while I can see where they were coming from, I really don't think it deserves the lampooning it received.

Gregorio, after a long struggle against mental illness, decides to end it all by killing himself. But not before discovering that the two people he trusted most - Tania, the love of his life, and Manuel, his best friend, have been having a sexual affair behind his back. After the final time he returns from his hitherto frequent asylum stays - Gregorio seems to reconcile with Manuel, despite knowing they can no longer remain best friends. Before dying, Gregorio leaves a little box to Manuel - filled with letters, photographs, assorted memorabilia, and 'secret messages' apparently taken from pop-lyrics. And the more Manuel is intrigued by them and tries to unravel the meaning of messages it contained, the more he begins to manifest symptoms of Gregorio's 'illness' that will start spiralling his life out of control. His deterioration is shown interspersed with non-linear flashbacks that will paint a not-so-pretty picture of two selfish individuals - Manuel and Tania. It is probable that Gregorio's illness may have even been exacerbated by the couples' unscrupulous behaviour. But we'll learn that the box he leaves behind is in effect part of an elaborate plan to seek their comeuppance...

Writer Arriaga states that the film is a story about madness, of love, of a sense of being lost, of guilt, and the realisation of consequences for ones' actions. Since I haven't read the novel myself, I'd have to go by what others have written about it upon publication, and from what I hear, it appears to have been faithfully adapted to screen, including its excruciatingly zigzagged storyline. I'm all for non-linear storylines - they're just how people remember their past - even if the person reminiscing them, unlike the audience, have the added advantage of having lived it and more. It is regardless a proven way to engage an audience, by letting them to put the pieces together like a puzzle. And a clever director like Nicolas Roeg will feed you just the right choice of pieces to keep you engaged and focused till the end.

My three misgivings about the film are, the order and choice of pieces (flashback sequences) fed to the viewer, the cinematography, and as a result of both, the characterisation. Some of the flashbacks are not directly relevant to the preceding scene nor will be recalled later like in a Greenaway or Medem, they've been inserted randomly to fill-in some blanks. The camera positions and angles do more to confuse and disorient than dramatise events - the techniques used work well for certain situations, but it is a touch overdone here. The director coerces us into hating the main characters by refusing to reveal any semblance of positivity in them, and subsequently all we feel is an indifference to everyone in the film. My overriding thought was that the actors themselves didn't know their characters well to do it justice. This is despite a decent enough performance by Diego Luna (as Manuel), and promising feature-film debuts by Liz Gallardo (Tania), and Irene Azuela (Margarita - Gregorio's sister).

The film features explicit nudity, with plenty of coital and post-coital scenes, some of which certainly don't contribute to the narrative. A case in point is the character of Rebeca, played by another debutant Camila Sodi - as lovely as she is to watch, her sex scene unfortunately does nothing for the film - her character could have just as well been explained away through a single spoken sentence. There is also suggestion of unsimulated sex in one or two scenes, but I'm not able to verify this conclusively. To summarise the film, it sincerely tries to emulate the standards of Michael Haneke, it is resolutely non-mainstream - laying its characters bare in more ways than one, it seriously attempts to explore some of the least appealing characteristics of human nature. It may not have had the finest of production values, but it certainly doesn't deserve panning. At least for its noble intentions, the film is Recommended Viewing.

Amazon DVD Link

About the DVD:
The DVD I have chosen to review is in full-frame - there is nevertheless also a widescreen version. I prefer this one however - the widescreen version, while showing insignificantly more detail to the left and right, has parts cropped at the top and bottom. And you and I know that's actually a no-no! :)


Liz Gallardo, Diego Luna, Irene Azuela, Emilio Echevarría, and Camila Sodi
I've taken the liberty of enhancing it to 720p, and apart from the occasional interlacing artefacts in the highlight areas, I think it has turned out alright. Let's know what you think - here’s a snapshot from the original DVD (left), and my enhanced version (right):

From the original DVD Enhanced to HD frame size

Liz Gallardo, Diego Luna, Irene Azuela, Emilio Echevarría, and Camila Sodi in El búfalo de la noche

Scene Guide:
  • Motel room 803 has always been the rendezvous-point for Manuel and Tania, behind the back of the former's best friend and the latter's boyfriend - Gregorio. He has since become privy to their affair and ended his relationship with both of them. In this scene Manuel wakes up a naked Tania to tell her that he'd just met Gregorio, recently released from mental asylum. "Did he enquire about me", she asks. "No", he replies. There's a flashback from their youth as Manuel jealously watches Gregorio and Tania together. Playing Manuel is Diego Luna, handsome if on the skinny side, and Liz Gallardo gives a natural and uninhibited performance as Tania.
  • A further flashback to Manuel and Tania's first sexual contact. Tania was already seeing Gregorio at the time, but we're told that she's managed to keep her hymen intact thus far. She also gives Manuel an unusual souvenir later.
  • After Gregorio dies, Manuel takes his sister Margarita on a car-ride. They have occasionally been having sex over the years. On this instance, it appears nothing much is happening, not for Margarita's lack of effort though - she's now got to deal with the fact that he loves Tania more than her. Margarita is played very well by the promising actress Irene Azuela. My DVD came with no extras, and there is no way to ascertain whether the sex act she performs is simulated or not. All I can say is, this scene can also be done using convincing props and lighting.
  • We get an eyeful of both Diego Luna and Liz Gallardo in this post-coital scene in room 803. I've not included their earlier love-making scene. This I think is also the most beautifully filmed of scenes. And the full-frame really helps..! ;)
  • Damn the earwig! Gregorio thinks his imagined insect is now starting to eat him from the inside! He pushes Tania away in another flashback scene before sulking to the bathroom - he fears he might hurt Tania otherwise. Gregorio is played by Emilio Echevarría, who has performed better. Very hard indeed - especially for a male, to act in the nude.
  • As cute and pretty Camila Sodi is, this is also the least necessary scene in the film, playing Rebeca - she too seems to be seeing Manuel on the sly. Manuel visits Rebeca after watching her boyfriend leave, asks her to disrobe and hangs in there for more, but she refuses sex this time, and tells him that she won't be seeing him again, because she loves him too much..!
  • Manuel does something rather despicable at the zoo after getting mad at Tania, who he suspects of hiding things from him. She visits room 803 and throws herself at him. She also seems to have a rather primal way of declaring her territorial rights, which is nevertheless convincingly filmed despite there being no direct evidence ( :) ).



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