Ale is a sweet-natured homeless trans woman, living in a shantytown in Buenos Aires. To make ends meet she sews clothes and gathers garbage and recyclables. One day she finds the suicide note of a woman named Mia, a long diary addressed to her daughter Julia, but which her now-widowed husband has thrown out. At first Ale only intends to return it but is soon captivated by Mia’s tragic story, so tries to connect with Julia and share what she learns.
(Warning: this review may contain spoilers.)
This is a story about the struggle to connect, and bridge the gaps between our different worlds: poor and rich, maricón and straight, queer and normal. And, conversely, how those gaps are huge and sometimes insurmountable obstacles. Our very first look at Ale sets the scene: she’s standing on the sidewalk, looking through the window of a fancy restaurant at a rich family having a lavish birthday dinner. People are laughing, there are gifts and cake. Ale is looking a little envious, maybe, but also a little sad, resigned to her place.
She seemed lonely to me, an outsider looking in… but then she returns to her cart, decorated with pretty balloons and butterflies, and her own name. She pulls it along with a surprisingly serene look on her face, meets with friends on the street, and eventually returns to her home. I was wrong: Ale isn’t alone, she has friends, family (chosen, but no less real), as well as a lover. And here’s the second theme of the film: family is where you find it. Most of the inhabitants of her shantytown are orphans, abandoned by their parents or rejected by mainstream society, who have found each other and built a community built on mutual trust and respect.
Not to say her life is all sweetness and light. The shantytown has no running water except the nearby river, no electricity or gas; they need mutual trust because all they have is each other; and they live in constant fear of harassment by the police for illegal squatting. Though they are in tentative negotiations with the city for a deal whereby they would all be relocated to a hotel and given a small stipend to live on, the town elders are opposed to this deal. Others, including Ale, support it, because it’s a chance for a normal life.
As Ale gets more and more into Mia’s sad tale of alienation and self-hatred, and more involved in Julia’s and Carlos’ lives, I wondered what what she was trying to do. Helping Julia deal with her grief, sure, but there was more to it than that. It looks like she was identifying far too closely with Mia; at one point she called herself “Mia” to one of her johns and later identifying Julia as her daughter. Mind you, that was to a homophobic asshole in a fancy restaurant and she had a knife to his throat; clarifying the nuances of the family dynamic would probably have taken too long.
Still, as much as Ale wants to take Mia’s place in the story of Julia’s life, she eventually realises that could never happen. The incident in the restaurant makes it clear that she doesn’t belong in “normal” society; Julia is not her daughter, and needs to deal with her loss in her own way. Whether or not moving down south with her grandmother is the right thing to do, that’s not Ale’s call, and in the end she is powerless to stop it. The most she can do is add her own farewell to Mia’s suicide diary, then go back to her own life.
Her life, though, is her shantytown being demolished by the city authorities and its people arrested or chased back to the streets. There’s no happy ending here on this side of the fence either, though we close with Ale greeting the sunrise with the same quiet serenity she has always shown. Whatever additional hardships she now faces, she will have the strength to cope.
I hope I’m right. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting that shot.
A few more thoughts:
I know the circumstances are different, but the hotel deal that was floated for the shantytown residents sounds very much like a First Nations reservation. The elders were right to mistrust it: it was meant only to contain them, remove them from the homes they built themselves, and exert a more subtle form of control than naked fear of the police. Since they were probably unemployable for any normal job, the stipend would simply make them dependent on the government.
About the direction: as seems typical of South American cinema (from my limited experience), the film’s pace is very slow compared to the films I’m used to. I didn’t mind—it made the film an exercise in patience—and the slow pace was broken up with a few montages and such.
The entire movie feels like a subtle deconstruction of an old trope: the wise and magical homeless person, full of earthy wisdom and useful skills, who swoops in to help an innocent rich kid in her moment of need, then unexpectedly disappears. (I can’t name any examples off the top of my head, but the setup feels very familiar.) Here, we see it from the opposite direction: Ale has her own life and her own needs, and does not exist solely for Julia. Her many skills—cooking, sewing, housekeeping—were learned out of necessity or simply from a lifetime of devouring fashion magazines.
(A version of this review first appeared on http://www.npdemers.net)
Nicolas Demers is a web developer and blogger living in Vancouver’s West End. In his spare time he enjoys science-fiction, photography, and is actively involved with the Vancouver Gay Volleyball Association.