As soon as Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro G. Iñarritu got a taste of success, they quickly headed to Hollywood. The same can’t be said for their compatriot Arturo Ripstein, who has been working since the ‘60s renaissance in Latin American cinema.
Nevertheless, Ripstein, whose latest film “Bleak Street” got its local premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s essential “Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema” series, has a cosmopolitan sensibility. He’s adapted novels by Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz and, less surprisingly, Colombian great Gabriel García Márquez. I haven’t seen enough of the Ripstein filmography, much of which hasn’t played the US, to judge which film is his masterpiece, but my favorite is “Deep Crimson,” which played the Film Forum in 1997.
“Deep Crimson” was a true-crime story remade from the American film “The Honeymoon Killers,” inspired by a couple’s real-life murder spree. Is it a coincidence that the first Ripstein film since that to get major attention on the film festival circuit and an American release also has a tabloid touch? Indeed, this tale of prostitutes killing masked wrestlers has already been fictionalized by the cable TV show “Tabloid with Jerry Springer.” However, Ripstein’s mix of tragedy and dark humor is more akin to a Jim Thompson script for Luis Buñuel.
After a tough day, two middle-aged prostitutes (Patricia Reyes Spíndola and Nora Velazquez) return home. As they’ve aged out of their profession, very few men are attracted to their services any more. One of them resents her daughter’s sexual relations with a teenage boy, as well as her husband’s secret life. The other lives with her elderly mother, who suffers from dementia, and uses her to beg for change. However, they do have a date that night with Little Death (Juan Francisco Longoria) and Little AK (Guillermo Lopez), twin wrestlers who are little people and never take off their masks. After the wrestlers complete a match, the women meet up with them in a cheap hotel and plan to dose them with eye drops, knocking them out and stealing their money. But things don’t go according to plan.
The lighting is the first really remarkable quality of “Bleak Street.” Alejandro Cantu’s cinematography combines some of the visual signs of film noir and neo-realism. The photography is very high-contrast black-and-white. Dark areas of the screen are barely legible, although diagonals of light come in through windows. Even in exteriors (which always look like sets), the lighting is extremely stylized and usually quite dingy.
Ripstein refrains from showing any details about what it’s like to be a wrestler; for that, you’ll have to turn to Robert Greene’s documentary “Fake It So Real.” He never depicts Little Death and Little AK performing in the ring, but he does show the prostitutes clucking about how little money they make. For their part, none of the film’s sex workers are young and beautiful –– or even the kind of attractive middle-aged women who might star in MILF porn. The film views them as a step above beggars.
But if you’re tempted to write off “Bleak Street” as a miserabilist fantasy, keep in mind its origins in real life, as well as a recent episode of the cable TV documentary series “Underworld, Inc.,” which depicted a woman prowling Las Vegas, posing as a prostitute in order to knock would-be johns out with chloroform and rob them.
The narrative of “Bleak Street” pushes toward reality, the style toward an over-the-top exaggerated treatment of poverty. You could accuse Ripstein of taking a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, but his compassion is as evident as his taste for the lower depths. Although heterosexual (his wife Paz Alicia Garciadiego writes all the scripts for his films), Ripstein made a pioneering film about gay life in Mexico, “The Place Without Limits,” in 1977, and he makes a partial return to that territory here. He depicts the furtive gay liaisons of Max (Alejandro Suárez), who has sex with a young man while wearing his wife’s bra and skirt. When she finds out, she gives him hell, but she seems more upset over the fact that he took her clothes without permission than over his gayness. No one gets away unscathed in “Bleak Street” –– husbands and wives slap each other around blithely –– but no one seems beyond redemption either.
BLEAK STREET | Directed by Arturo Ripstein | Leisure Time Features | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Jan. 20 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org