An austere tone piece about the numbing effects of grief and the harm of childhood bullying, After Lucia paints a nightmarish portrait of contemporary Mexico City. The ‘Lucia’ of the title relates to the passing of a woman who’s survived by a lonely husband, Jose, and his daughter, Alejandra. As you might expect, the story tells the tale of these two struggling to orient to life without someone they love. The title would suggest a film about the grieving process and initially that’s precisely what we get. Then the film takes an unexpected turn into torturous hate crimes that relate to its main theme in tenuous ways.
These types of tales tend to be spiritual investigations about the process of moving on and learning to love again. After Lucia, Mexico’s submission for the Academy Awards, instead argues that human behavior operates only on the function of peer pressure and individual whims. The picture remains grounded in the present, forced forward by simmering anger – Jose struggles to hold down a job – and the confusion of childhood. After Lucia deals with a contemporary world where parents and children alike can remain separate but tethered to the technology of cell phones and computers. Director Michel Franco’s distanced, icy style (reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s recent Indie projects) portrays people who can function with each other without actually being connected. In many ways, After Lucia’s primarily about the damaging effects of an indifferent, technologically-advanced world.
After a late night party leads Alejandra to sleep with a fellow high school student, she becomes the butt of jokes that escalate into bullying and then outright torture. How this connects to the initial grief felt for her mother’s lose only comes in the form of Alejandra being unable to confide in anyone. Jose hardly exists, except in short after-school discussions. He’s not un-loving, he’s just not there.
Alejandra’s torture is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a high school drama, including rape, hair-cutting, force-feeding, and public humiliation. It’s not a stretch to question why these kids are so evil, and why they specifically hate Alejandra. I couldn’t help but wonder if the entire film was a fantasy representation of Alejandra’s fractured psychology. Not that the narrative supports this claim in any concrete manner.
The convenience of the father’s disappearance halfway through and the lack of even one child or teacher recognizing Alejandra’s pain (especially in a high-profile private school) tests the credibility of the picture, but it also works to show how self-absorbed our culture is. Again relating to a world hidden behind computer screens, society must fear for children who get veiled by technology.
The final moments of After Lucia, specifically the haunting final image, fittingly play on our hopes as movie watchers while also exposing the extremes that a father will go to avenge grief. Like in A History of Violence, the film manages to get us on the side of its protagonist and then root for the actions they take, no matter how violent they may be. In some respects, we become just as pressured by a justified act of evil as the children at the school.
After Lucia might be uneven, if also thin and occasionally contrived, but it’s a unique take on a world growing ever more dark and disconnected. It’s a realistic portrait of humans acting out for purposes we can relate to and those we can’t understand. The saying goes, “Everything happens for a reason.” In After Lucia, everything happens for no reason at all. It’s horrifying and cathartic to take in. [B]