– Following the orphan son of a sicario, Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez weave a brilliant film, in a skilful and striking blend of coming of age story, genre cinema, and sociological portrait

Review: Sujo

Juan Jesús Varela in Sujo

“Impressed by his own solitude, with the feeling of having become the shadow of himself, someone who could not be seen or heard.” On the surface, it would seem that nothing connects the late 19th century England of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (the quote above is from that novel) and the Michoacán of today, in the Mexican Tierra Caliente, a place poisoned by drug trafficking and violence. That is the setting for Sujo, the excellent film by the duo Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez, unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic competition (where the latter had won the Special Jury Prize for Best Screenplay and the Audience Award in 2020 with her debut feature Identifying Features [+see also:
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). But while times change, orphans who try to resist a stifling social determinism remain the same, and like Jude, Sujo must survive and grown up in a hostile world. He is the son of a “sicario,” a killer nicknamed The Eight, considered a traitor and eliminated by a local cartel that does not wish to see the four year old child become a man looking for vengeance. 

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It’s from this premise (which is the topic of the film’s first of four parts) that the directors develop a fascinating story, simultaneously very realistic and very dramatic, with a remarkable use of the off-screen space that perfectly symbolises Sujo’s uncomfortable position. Reduced to invisibility in a threatening environment, like all young people he is looking for meaning, for an identity, for a place in existence. 

“You cannot hide your entire life!” Spared by the local boss at the last minute on the condition that he never sets foot in the town again, Sujo grows up in the wilderness, isolated with his aunt Nemesia (Yadira Perez Esteban), a very independent woman perceived by many as a witch because she is sensitive to the world of dreams. Only visits from childhood friends, brothers Jeremy and Jai, and their mother Rosalia (Karla Garrido), still connect him to the outside world. But there is also his sicario father’s car, buried in the undergrowth, a constant reminder of the past that fans the flame of his desire for emancipation. Especially since Sujo (Juan Jesús Varela) is now a teenage, and Jeremy (Jairo Hernández Ramírez) and Jai (Alexis Jassie Varela) want to join the cartels… 

Very well constructed by the two filmmakers/screenwriters, the film takes us all the way to Mexico where Sujo’s path will cross that of an Argentine university professor (Sandra Lorenzano). This is a coming-of-age story between darkness and light, between the deadly chokehold on a penniless Mexico and sometimes contradictory impulses, very skilfully weaved by filmmakers who know to take their time and to set up dramatic outbursts. In the vein of a Latin American cinema that knows how to combine an endearing portrait full of humanity, an edifying socio-economic tableau, the cruel airs of genre cinema and a zest of mysticism, Sujo is a fascinating work of direction and editing. Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez demonstrate an evident ease for creating intense and suggestive atmospheres with simple elements (a look, a face, a sky, silhouettes, voices out of frame, etc.) all the while mastering the complexity of a narrative with a wide scope. It’s a very rich palette that makes Sujo a burning and beguiling film.

Sujo was produced by Mexico’s Enaguas Cine and co-produced by the US (Jewerl Ross) and by French company Alpha Violet, which is also handling international sales.

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(Translated from French)

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