Nicolás Pereda

First Spanish Retrospective

Here is a hypothesis to consider for all of Nicolás Pereda’s films: repetition is his poetic principle. It is far from being just another piece of his cinematic rhetoric. The act of repetition is a test for the artist. Film-makers have always known this: to do a take again involves calibrating the unexpected through trial and error until the desired or envisioned result is achieved. Takes are repeated in order to differentiate between them and find the stand-out shot, which, strangely, repetition makes unrepeatable.

In Pereda’s cinema, repetition governs the mise-en-scène and gives shape to a wide-ranging curiosity. It might involve the repeated reading of a letter by different characters (Verano de Goliat), a trivial yet inexplicable act; or getting into a van on two consecutive occasions, which seems to violate the diegetic logic of the action (Perpetuum Mobile); the variations in the articulation of a political idea in the mouths of different people heard at different times (Matar extraños); or more directly, the recreation of all of the motifs of his films in one single film (Los mejores temas). Yet it is always about the same thing: finding that act that stands out, a gesture or moment that breaks up the asphyxiating and unproductive circle. When it becomes impossible to breathe in the domestic universe, his characters flee outside; the final minutes of Juntos are an excellent example of this.

Pereda’s stories have focused on family issues, but now a new theme can be glimpsed: the asymmetry of social ties and the discontent they cause. The interview, the film-maker’s preferred format with which to examine what is not shown in the shot, is the format chosen in El palacio in order to situate the invisible discourse of power in the role of interviewer. He creates his own system of film and, in order to change the focus of his argument, Pereda takes on a new theme to portray: politics.

Let us begin with an early and important film. Perpetuum Mobile starts with the slow movement of an old woman. Singing as she inches forward, she goes from the living room to her bed. Pereda then decides to radically exclude her from the screen until virtually the very end of the film, when her presence will cause a disturbance for the two main characters, living on the outskirts of Mexico City. Between the beginning and the ritual and ceremonial journey with which the film closes, Pereda focuses on a young man named Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez, his regular muse who appears in all his films) and his mother.

There is one mysterious and philosophically important scene: towards the end, Gabino’s girlfriend gets into his van. Seconds later, the same scene is repeated, without any explanation. The scene is not essential to the story, but it is important from the philosophical and aesthetic point of view. Perpetuum Mobile, like all of Pereda’s work, is a portrayal and exploration of repetition.

As with Juntos, a film which makes fewer concessions and which is more minimalistic in a strict sense, Pereda opts to break up the repetition, or rather, he chooses a moment at which to differentiate from the constant, unvarying cycle. This drift away from repetition takes the shape of a journey, a move out into the open, to nature. In this way, space is used to break and escape from the circle. And just as in Juntos, when the young characters search for a lost pet in the woods, the director achieves certain amount of auditory peace and visual relaxation by replacing the urban landscape with a natural setting.

Todo, en fin, el silencio lo ocupaba, seems to be something very different. The director himself stated that this film aimed to offer an alternative take to the traditional “behind the scenes” view. In this way, he sought to justify the significant number of long shots, which he thought were more appropriate for a “behind the scenes view”, although his own film, truth be told, actually consists of some scenes in which the well-know actress, activist, performer and writer, Jesusa Rodríguez, appears as Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz in the play Primero sueño, puesta en abismo.

Shot in black and white, Todo, en fin, el silencio lo ocupaba is, at times, magisterial: the frame is generally dark and it is the light which invades the darkness. This approach has seldom been explored in cinema, in which the motif is almost always Apolline, sun-drenched and luminous. Pereda turns this on its head: the shot begins in darkness and light slowly takes over the surface and edges of the shot.

Todo, en fin, el silencio lo ocupaba is a fantastic film about people working as a team on a well-defined plan, which does not prevent the occurrence of a misfortune which becomes the central event of the film, its moment of splendour. The final shots of the rain are beautiful and quite literally to be admired; black and white seem to combine mysteriously into a colour whose name escapes us, lying outside the scheme we use to label the colours and which links them to objects and phenomena.

After this came three more films: Verano de Goliat, Los mejores temas and Matar extraños. Much has been written about Verano de Goliat, perhaps Pereda’s best film. What can we say about it? That it contains the best opening of all his films? The great anomaly of the film, what is original about it, consists of the brutal transformation of one of its characters. Is this a warning, a sign of what is to come? In this film, Pereda reached maturity as a film-maker and his approach achieved perfection. Where to go from here? It seems that the way forward is to leave this universe and its creatures behind.

It is for this reason that Los mejores temas should be seen as a film which deconstructs and also provides closure. All of the same obsessions are present: the imperfect and messy family ties are taken to a new level with the appearance of Gabino’s absent father. The emotional disorder is palpable, but its representation and interpretation have an unexpectedly comic side to them. The humour is bitter, dry and uncomfortable, but completely in keeping with an idiosyncrasy in which nothing seems to be firmly rooted in the world: life is a joke, one which, logically, repeats itself. This does not mean that there are not real financial worries, or money-making schemes aimed at addressing them, but selling health products or music recordings are no roads to wealth. The emotional instability always has a material counterpart, financial problems, a result of capriciousness, indolence and irresponsibility. The joke comes at a price.

It is for this reason that, when the characters come out from their never-ending confinement, it feels like a brief breath of fresh air. The spiritual exhaustion seems to lift for a few moments. It is a short respite and this arrival at the lake, into the open, is repeated again and again, as both a structural necessity for Pereda’s films and as an imperative for the characters which inhabit them (the sustained long shot chosen to portray this brief encounter with nature is of an admirable precision and elegance, cinema at its best). The rest is and will be undifferentiated repetition, even if the roles change and a false father is replaced by a real one.

The first five minutes of Matar extraños (a film co-directed with Jacob Schulsinger) are wonderful: a woman puts forward a modern conception of History and the revolution, and we listen to the limited knowledge possessed by the actors of the revolutionary experience. Those involved in creating History may imagine its course and project their own personal and collective fantasies, but they must always learn to live with what is unknown and undetermined. Next, a man stares into the camera repeating the thesis put forward by the woman. Then, we see some long shots of buildings which seem to belong to times past, evoking both the landscape typical of westerns and what we might imagine town buildings of Mexico in 1910 to be like, with these scenes being interspersed with scenes inside a modern house.

Repetition is a characteristic pattern of the film (as it is in all Pereda’s cinema); also, how to represent the events (both dramatically and politically) as an intellectual exercise is a dilemma to resolve; the discontinuity and the continuity between the different points in history is a source of pragmatic curiosity.

What Nicolás Pereda’s next films be like? Will they be westerns? Will he film discontent from a more political point of view? Will he shoot science fiction? After a first exceptional stage in his career, he seems to be heading towards other areas. Repetition and differentiation. A logical step for him to take was to collaborate on his last film with ‘another’. The other is the one who points out and calls our attention to differences. What is to come will be straightforward and yet also a crossroads. It will concern some kind of invention, or rather something which another Pereda has found within Pereda himself, something which will then be repeated with all the new issues contained in Nicolás Pereda’s films.

Here is an initial answer to our questions: Pereda’s cinema is undergoing a period of transition. Los mejores temas was probably Pereda’s farewell to a particular system representation on film. Matar extraños was a first enigmatic experiment. El palacio is another attempt at renewal, a test. Both films present something new: a move from the domestic family-oriented arena to a public and political space. Revolution as a concept structured Matar extraños; in the enigmatic El palacio, the microphysics of power is pervasive.

The opening long shot is wonderful. The seventeen female protagonists of the film are all brushing their teeth at the same time. There are young girls and women young and old; the chosen setting is not a bathroom but a patio with large sinks. This activity makes them equal, despite their dissimilar experiences and, possibly, their functions. Where are they? For several minutes, the only thing we see are various cleaning activities carried out by some of these women. Everything takes place in an old house, but no clue is provided as to where it is. Abstraction and routine. Pereda is capable of filming the hanging out of clothes or making a bed as if they were aesthetic events.

We are shown a donkey wandering around and, for a moment, we perceive a comic reference. Yet it is a donkey, an animal of servitude. And the title of this film speaks of a palace. The women can be seen as a kind of reserve army. Are they in training? What happens off-screen plays a role in the mise-en-scène. Power is what cannot be seen but it acts (in the film) and it can be heard. Power asks, sets a wage, determines working hours, and demands punctuality and flexibility. Pereda makes the boss invisible, but he brings him in off-screen in the interviews (a characteristic of his artistic approach), which the employer uses to vet the qualities of possible employees.

And as if all this were not enough, there is a fantastic display of solidarity between the female workers: a priceless sustained embrace between two women.

He has lived in Canada for some time, but he only shoots in Mexico. Without any particular affiliations or disciples who emulate him, Nicolás Pereda is the silent and singular figure of Mexican cinema.