Bird Watching – La Morte’s and Mendoza’s “Entre Nos”
One of my favorite things about writing this column is the motivation it gives me to poke around the depths of Netflix’s streaming catalogue, searching for women-directed films I may not have heard of, that I can check out instantly from the comfort of my couch (I would also search for women-written films, but Netflix hasn’t quite figured out that people might want to know who wrote a film). This was how I stumbled upon Entre Nos (2009), co-written and co-directed by Gloria La Morte and Paola Mendoza, a worthy indie film that tells one story in the vast picture of immigration in the United States.
Also taking on starring duties, Mendoza plays Mariana, a native Colombian recently moved to New York City with her husband Antonio and two children, apparently without legal documentation. Mariana has followed Antonio’s impulses, and hopes that she’s done the right thing to make a better life for her family. They’ve settled into an apartment, and we open upon them entertaining friends over for a dinner Mariana is obviously proud to serve. Yet, there is a closed-off vibe from Antonio, and suddenly he announces that he’s found new work. In Miami. He will leave in just a few days, and let them know when the family can join him.
Quickly it becomes clear that Antonio has no intention of returning, sending for his family, or even sending them money. Left with bills to pay and no one to help her, Mariana tries whatever she can think of to make some money: selling homemade empanadas on the street; seeking daily under-the-table work as a seamstress; washing stacks of dishes in the back of a dark restaurant while her children wait at home. Unsurprisingly, it’s not enough, and the family’s financial situation quickly becomes a full-fledged crisis.
We know from moment one that Mariana is struggling in a game she can’t win. We know before she even tries that she will not be able to keep a roof over their heads with these meager opportunities, but we also know that she has to try anyway. One of the impressive aspects of the film is how it stays engaging as we watch these predictable failures. Much of this comes from Mendoza’s performance. She plays Mariana with a captivating balance of strength, desperation, and ingenuity. We watch her keep a straight-faced front for her children, even as they come to the point where they have to spend nights on the street. Though their circumstances are something they have to endure, we feel that she never believes that means they should be ashamed or lose their dignity.
The tension in films of this sort comes from not knowing when the characters have hit rock bottom. We ask ourselves whether it’s the sort of film where each successive situation or choice will end in the worst possible way, and we’ll come away with little hope, or one where hard work and a break or two along the way will let the characters we care about come out of everything okay. Entre Nos impressed me most of all by balancing these two sides of the coin. There are moments when the viewer’s heart will sink, and others when the thing we dread doesn’t materialize. We see all of the twists this story could take, all the dark corners it could go around, but in the end, like with most experiences, not everything we fear will come to pass. It makes for a film that is much less predictable than I was concerned it might be in the first act.
The style of this film allows the writing and acting to tell the story, rather than pushing any emotion with the visual style. This directorial strategy works very well with this kind of character-centric story, and the emphasis on the personal, for me, actually helps to illustrate the broader picture of the system in which many people struggle like this every day. Mariana’s experience is like many that I know real people are facing, but she never feels like an archetype, and the film never feels like it’s preaching. It’s a love letter to mothers who have to go it alone in a harsh world, but done deftly, without straying into melodrama or unearned sentimentality.
One last thing to praise about the film: I’ve often stated that I’m a sucker for those rare, truly great turns from child actors, and this film treated me to two such performances. Laura Montana as Andrea, a sweet girl of about seven, never feels cloying or fake as the character puts on a brave face for her mother, but can’t help slipping into asking when it will all be over. Sebastian Villada as her older brother Gabriel, about twelve or so, frankly couldn’t have done a better job. Whether in scenes where Gabriel desperately tries to act like a normal kid getting into mischief, or when he and Mariana speak honestly about what’s happening to them, Villada remains pure and unaffected in his delivery. It’s what every child performance should be.
Entre Nos showed at many film festivals and won several accolades, including an Honorable Mention in the Narrative Feature category at Tribeca. I hope to see much more from these filmmakers.