Two Mexican mini-luchadores die with their masks on in “Bleak Streak,” a slow, lunatic swirl into the hopes, kinks and day-to-day hustle of a handful of Mexico City characters so colorful, the pic’s black-and-white cinematography merely amplifies their eccentricities. Between its pint-sized pugilists, cross-dressing philanderers and desperate old whores, this carnivalesque group portrait might easily be mistaken for some lost Fellini project, were it not for the twist that this phantasmagoric true-crimer wasn’t dreamed up by its director, Mexican legend Arturo Ripstein (“Deep Crimson”), but pulled from the pages of the local newspaper.
While another helmer might have steered such stranger-than-fiction material the way of Todd Browning’s “Freaks” — and in so doing delivered something more commercial that this film-fest curiosity — Ripstein and his screenwriter wife Paz Alicia Garciadiego seek the humanity in each of these bizarre characters, beginning with two “Lilliputian” lucha performers named Little Death and Little AK (Juan Francisco Longoria and Guillermo Lopez). Inspired by real-life twins Alejandro and Alberto Jimenez (aka La Parkita and Espectrito II), Mini-Estrella wrestling stars whose bizarre double murder has been more tawdrily re-enacted for “Tabloid With Jerry Springer,” the brothers worked as fun-size mascots for their equally ridiculous namesakes, Death and AK-47.
It’s a strange way to make a living, but the siblings take their jobs seriously — so much so that they refuse to remove their masks at any time, even in the company of their long-suffering wives. (In a game we’ll call “other avenues ‘Bleak Street’ might have taken,” that character quirk suggests a playful, “Parent Trap”-style comedy in which the brothers swap places.) Ripstein clearly respects the wrestlers’ work ethic, and pride in a job well done — plus the workplace challenges that affect even such unusual professions — serve as running themes in the film.
He extends the same peculiar admiration to the culprits, two aging prostitutes named Adela (Nora Velazquez) and Dora (Patricia Reyes Spindola) who find it harder than ever to satisfy their customers as ever-younger competition elbows them off their street corners. Without sensationalism, “Bleak Street” depicts the wild lives these two ladies lead: Adela rolls her invalid mother out onto the streets to beg, while Dora is tired of being the breadwinner for judgmental teenage daughter Jeza (Greta Cervantes) and gay husband Max (Alejandro Suarez), who compounds the insult of his infidelities by slipping into his wife’s “work clothes” every time he cheats.
Seemingly deprived of any other options, one can almost forgive them for resorting to a scheme popular with the district’s other pros, whereby they use prescription eyedrops to knock out and then rob their clients. It’s never gone wrong before, only Adela doesn’t factor in the “midget” wrestlers’ size and inadvertently administers a lethal dose.
Does Ripstein intend this upsetting true story as a tragedy? Of course he does, although the brothers aren’t the only victims here, and the director makes it clear that Adela and Dora were no more evil than Little Death and Little AK were angels. (Early on, the brothers are seen battering their wives, refusing to check whatever strange fetish compels them to rent hookers together.) As in Fassbinder’s bemused vision of “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” such decadence is rendered without judgment, though we sense the suffocating impossibility of escape — where that sense of being trapped has been a recurring tactic throughout Ripstein’s career.
Captured in high-contrast monochrome, this Mexico City underworld becomes a kind of expressionistic hell, through which d.p. Alejandro Cantu’s camera prowls in long, disconcerting takes, not unlike the wide-angle way Terry Gilliam lays out any of his dystopian worlds — except this surreal environment purports to be real. Drawing no line between private spaces and the craziness of the streets, the film immerses us in the squalor, but leaves us powerless to help (the final scene between Adela and her mother is a heartbreaker).
Certain images, such as Dora clutching the two child-size wrestlers to her breast, leave lasting impressions, though Garciadiego’s script doesn’t seem to do enough with the story, other than laying it out in linear order for Ripstein to film. Some might consider their ambivalence admirable, though “Bleak Street” could have benefited from some creative embellishment. What do the brothers want, for example? For the tragedy of their deaths to register, it would help to have some goal interrupted. (While a longer life might have been nice, it’s hard to imagine them dying any happier than having just won a match, enjoying a post-coital snooze together in bed.)
It hasn’t been Ripstein’s inclination to satirize for some time, though there are ingredients here (like anything to do with the cross-dressing Max) that recall a wilder phase much earlier in his career, circa 1977’s masculinity-critiquing “The Place Without Limits,” a landmark for its epoch in the way it confronted the subject of Mexican homosexuality. The camera and script, even the acting style, are all tamer here, though some of those themes simmer just beneath the surface. The film seems determined to remain respectful, but in so doing, he’s given audiences less reason to care.
Venice Film Review: 'Bleak Street'
Reviewed at Venice Film Festival, Sept. 9, 2015. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Masters.) Running time: 99 MIN. (Original title: “La calle de la amargura”)
(Mexico-Spain) A Productora 35, Conaculta, Wanda Vision, Equipment & Film Design, Alebrije Prods., Telepix, Cinema Maquina, Estudios Churubusco, with the support of Programa IberMedia. (International sales: Latido Films, Madrid.) Produced by Walter Navas, Arturo Ripstein. Executive producers, Xanat Briceno, Luis Alberto Estrada, Jose Maria Morales.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein. Screenplay, Paz Alicia Garciadiego. Camera (B&W), Alejandro Cantu; editors, Ripstein, Carlos Puente; production designer, Marisa Pecanins; costume designer, Laura Garcia de la Mora; sound, Antonio Diego; assistant director, Julio Quezada.
Patricia Reyes Spindola, Nora Velazquez, Sylvia Pasquel, Alejandro Suarez, Arcelia Ramirez, Juan Francisco Longoria, Guillermo Lopez, Ernando Gonzalez, Alberto Estrella, Emoe de la Parra, Eligio Melendez, Greta Cervantes. (Spanish dialogue)