Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Bleak Street’

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La Calle de la Amargura (Bleak Street) open in Berkeley, Friday, Mar. 11

As stylistically different from last week’s feature as chalk is from cheese, La Calle de la Amargura (Bleak Street, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 11) shares one thing in common with The Incident – its Mexican origins. Coupled with the ongoing success of Alejandro González Iñárritu, it seems Mexican cinema is experiencing a minor renaissance of late – if not a new Golden Age – and there is more on the way.

Directed by another of Mexico’s leading contemporary filmmakers, Arturo Ripstein, the aptly titled Bleak Street takes place in a grim, post-industrial slum somewhere south of the Border. Its characters – midget wrestlers, prostitutes, and a plethora of other down and outers – live on the edges of society, stealing from one another in a fruitless effort to get ahead – or at least stay afloat.

Liliputian brothers Akita (Guillermo Lopez) and Muerte Chiquita (Juan Francisco Longoria) are big wheels on Bleak Street. Tiny luchadores employed as ‘shadows’ (ring partners and allies for full-sized wrestlers AK-47 and Death), the pair — who never (and I do mean never!) remove their masks — may not be particularly well-off, but in the context of tumbledown Bleak Street they’re the neighborhood’s biggest success story.

A winning bout in the squared circle means a decent purse, of course, and the boys are under strict orders to turn over the proceeds to their beloved, alcoholic mother and her good for nothing common-law husband before engaging in any post-victory debauchery. They’re only human, however, and basking in their latest triumph the lads decide that, today at least, celebration comes first.


Enter Dora (Nora Velazquez) and Adela (Patricia Reyes Spindola), two well past their prime streetwalkers with a routine that involves doping clients with eye drops and then emptying their wallets before their victims regain consciousness. Sensing an impressive opportunity, the two latch onto ‘Little AK-47’ and ‘Little Death’ after their latest triumph and put their plan into effect – with unanticipated and tragic consequences for all concerned.

Based on a true story, most viewers will find Ripstein’s film an uneasy viewing experience. Bleak Street’s characters are hard to empathize with (primary example: Adela keeps a mute beggar woman imprisoned as a source of secondary income), and it takes time to fully comprehend the twists and turns taken by Paz Alicia Garciadiego’s complex screenplay. If you stick with the film beyond its first hour, however, you’ll begin to reap its substantial rewards.

Produced by Churubusco, Mexico’s leading studio since 1945, Bleak Street echoes the classics of the aforementioned Golden Age – primarily via Alejandro Cantu’s stark, deeply atmospheric black and white cinematography and repeated references to Dolores del Rio, one of Mexican cinema’s biggest stars of the post-war period. Blending those influences with the tropes of film noir, the police procedural, and even the florid melodramas of Italian filmmaker Raffaello Mattarrazo, it’s an impressive, if deeply troubling and depressing, piece of work.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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