This is Not Berlin captures universal teenage boydom in a specific setting
Until seeing This is Not Berlin I had no idea that Mexico City has its own counterculture movement in the mid-80s. Granted, I don’t really have much knowledge of Mexico City overall, but that’s why movies like this one are, for my money, the easiest method for expanding one’s worldview. Stylistic similarities conjure the 1980s that I know through lived experience and cultural romanticism, but the backdrop of Mexico City gives this edgy, challenging coming of age story an added resonance. A resonance that I’ve had difficulty shaking.
All in all, This Is Not Berlin uses a familiar framework: precocious youth gets involved in an attractive, volatile culture, causing both personal growth and social conflict right at that tumultuous time between adolescence and adulthood. We’ve seen it a hundred times before and we’ll see it a few hundred more before climate change kills us all. The precocious youth in this case is named Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a seventeen year old boy with interests outside of those around him. He digs the music of the 1970s, he’s not terribly interested in soccer, and he’s pretty average at school. He’s uniquely into robotics, oftentimes making motorized knickknacks to the delight of others. It’s his skill with electronics which inadvertently puts him on a path to self discovery.
Carlos is brought in to fix the busted keyboard of a popular local band fronted by Rita (Ximena Romo), the older sister of his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano). In exchange for the repairs, he and Gera are permitted one time entrance to the legendary club, the Aztec, where music blasts, drugs flow like water, and sexual freedom reigns supreme.
When asked if the Aztec is a gay club, Rita scoffs and tells her brother that it’s an “everything club.” Later, another young woman describes life at the Aztec as a form of artistic hedonism: “We’re fun people that like to get together with other fun people and do fun things.” Sounds pretty good on paper, especially if you’re a lost teenager living in a repressed society. But “fun things” can be a dangerous concept, especially when intravenous drugs and AIDS are around, but condoms and foresight are not.
Carlos and Gera take different paths through this exciting new scene, interacting with a host of fully realized and well-acted characters. The appeal of this world, grimy as it is, is undeniable, and it’s particularly compelling to find yourself rooting for these two boys to establish an identity while also wishing they’d just pump the breaks before irreversible damage occurs.
Stylistically, This Is Not Berlin has a variety of looks. Mexico City is dusty and unforgiving. The Aztec is welcoming. It pops with neon and glistens with sweat and leather. Reality and fantasy are paid equal due, and even though the film lacks a significant finish to top off two hours of glee and dread, the thematics take the form of these too disparate worlds beginning to take the other’s shape. Cinematographer Alfredo Altamirano brings these polar opposite motifs together, in tandem with our protagonists discovering that fantasy is only a fleeting thing — reality is here to stay.
Director Hari Sama has a strong hand in delivering a heightened feel that isn’t actually that heightened at all. The way the camera moves is the same way a teenaged boy’s mind moves. As Carlos tries on a collection of different images, so too does the film. It conjures the feelings I had in my youth, wondering whether I should define myself as a “ska” or “nerdcore,” clueless to the fact that neither is a proper means of self-definition, and that identity comes not by choice, but through experience.
I wanted to note that more than a few large scale art pieces/productions/performances are depicted in the film, and each is individually compelling and awesome. I’ll have to do some research to see if these were designed for the film or if they were based on actual work, but either way, I’m impressed.
This is Not Berlin opens today at the Ritz Bourse.