Presented as part of Chicago’s 33rd Latino Film Festival, La Habitación was the result of a joint effort between eight of Mexico’s premier contemporary directors of an elaborate story spanning eight critical periods in Mexican history.
It’s strange, then, that some of that emphasis on location was quite literally lost in translation. The English title is “Tales of Mexico.” But Habitación means something more like “room,” or “habitat”—words loaded with a sense of place and a geographic weight. “Tales of Mexico” is a bland, soulless cop-out–everything the movie isn’t.
This is apparent from the first scene. Ángela (the remarkable Irene Jacobs), the proud young mistress of a colonial Mexican home, stands alone in a bright, clean bathroom. In the corner, a mirrored cabinet seems to move of its own accord. We watch in apprehension as she inches toward it, finally mustering the courage to throw it open. Inside sits a man as startled to see her as she is him. We watch her think: “do I turn him in?” In this first sympathetic moment, she decides: no. She tells him: “Just turn around. Don’t watch me undress.” And then she closes the cabinet and bathes as normal.
We wonder why—this stranger has done nothing to earn her sympathy. Ángela is a confusing character, aloof and expensively dressed, but genuinely interested as to why her indigenous servant, Guadalupe, is dressed so nicely. As the two women are talking, Ángela’s husband Alfredo (Mauricio García Lozano) stomps into the room and orders her to speed up—they have places to be, a president to meet, and he is fed up waiting. “And don’t let these nasty indigenous see you undressed. It’s improper.”
The lovers take advantage of the rich couple’s absence, drinking expensive liquor and trying on their luxurious clothes. They eventually go to bed together but wake up, the room still in a debauched state, to hear the horses of Ángela and Alfredo’s carriage. Guadalupe frantically begins to pick up the room. Hilario, instead, takes a sword from its sheath, and stands, the long weapon poised, just inside the door. He doesn’t know if Ángela or Alfredo is coming first. The handle turns. Hilario tenses. The door begins to open. And then a hard cut to the next story.
Each of the stories in La Habitación involves these complicated arrangements of love, violence, and humanity, and each of them is set in the same old building. “La Habitación” of the title evolves with the trajectory of the movie to reflect the major developments at different moments in Mexican history. During the 1910 Mexican Revolution, lamps are shot out by opposition forces; walls crack and crumble in the earthquake of 1985; most damning, in the modern era it is home to groups of armed boys no older than ten.
It is in this same setting, which begins as decadent but grows ever more claustrophobic and decayed, that we see the expression of terrible violence. A Chinese grandmother is strangled to death in a pointless hate crime; an addict poisons her abusive boyfriend; young boys, hungry, armed, and confused, shoot and kill members of a rival gang.
La Habitación is hard film to watch. It is an exploration of horror, paralysis, and immobility, trapped inside the same limited setting, watching violence play out again and again. There is no sense of triumph at the end of the film, no redemption. The film ends among that gang of boys as they bleed to death on the ground.
Each scene, however, explores the connection between kinship, affection, and violence. It is the boyfriend, not a mugger or thief, who is abusive. Ángela’s cruel husband is the one who inspires her sympathy for Guadalupe and Hilario. Before the shooting begins, two of the boys find a brief friendship and sympathy in one another, and cherish it—they are clearly not used to tender moments.
This is the theme and course of La Habitación. We face terrible fear, a great tragedy, and the paralysis that must accompany such constant horror as it continues across time, people, and across places. It is inescapable.
Just as inescapable, the film argues, are moments of connection, exquisite beauty, and warm affection. Living as a human being is vulnerable. It is living a life forever broken open. And it is doing so across time, permanent and unchangeable. This is a grim thought, given the suffering in the film. But I ended the film somehow reassured. Everyone else kept going.
I guess I should too.