The Desert Within (2008, Rodrigo Plá)

Did anyone know it was illegal to be catholic in Mexico in the 1920’s and/or 30’s? That there was some kind of war going on? Thanks to my schooling history of dry, unengaging, U.S.-based history classes, I am barely aware that there is a country called Mexico, so my ignorance of its religious-political history can’t be surprising.

Elías lives with his mom and very pregnant wife, has seven kids and a leaky roof. Wife falls down fixing the roof, thinks her baby is dying, so asks Elías to fetch the preacher. Problem: the government has declared Catholicism illegal so getting a priest is risky. Now either the priest is leaving town, or he’s getting a group together to fight the gov’t, but Elías interferes and everyone (incl one of his sons) is killed. E. himself escapes but now everyone is mad at him so he grabs his newborn son, his newlydead wife and his remaining six kids and heads out to live all reclusive in the desert, building a church to atone for the killing of all those people.

Years pass! Youngest kid grows up sickly then gets better. A boy dies raising the church bell, two boys die of plague, and a girl goes mad and drowns herself looking for signs from god. Another boy visits his grandmother, who thinks he is Elías so he ends up living quietly with her and starting a family. The church is finished but Elías isn’t sure that he has been forgiven, frets about it and starts wrecking the church wall to rebuild it until he gets it right. Meanwhile, the two remaining kids, boy Aureliano and girl Micaela, start having sex with each other. She dies, father kills himself, Aureliano lives to narrate this movie in framing story.

Movie comes off as your standard prestige-pic, professionally made but without anything interesting to recommend it. It’s bummer city for the first half hour, then seems to go on forever and I’m thinking things will get better with the whole church-building, but tragedy and madness slowly follow until the movie dumps us off right back in bummer city where we started. I mean I guess Aureliano is free now, but the death of his sexy sister puts a damper on that, and the thing with the brother taking his father’s place at gramma’s could be fascinating if it was given more than a minute of screen time. Surprised to hear that this swept the Mexican academy awards, leaving the AFF’s big-deal closing-night pic Rudo y Cursi empty-handed.