Words: Saam Das
'Abel' (UK Release: 7 Jan '11)
Director: Diego Luna
Cast: Christopher Ruiz Esparza, Karina Gidi, Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, Geraldine Alejandra
You never quite know what you're getting with a low-budget foreign language film but seeing the names "Gael Garcia-Bernal" and "John Malkovich" listed as executive producers at the start of 'Abel' reassured me, particularly after I'd intentionally avoided any of the film's marketing. I would suggest doing the same, although with the likes of '127 Hours' and 'The King's Speech' also out this week, you may need more convincing to part with your hard-earned monies. Rest assured, 'Abel' is a refreshingly surreal alternative to those films.
The film's titular character is a young boy, who having resided in a mental heath institute for the past two years, has been granted a week's release to return home to live with his single mother, elder sister and younger brother. Initially finding it difficult to settle in, Abel (Christopher Ruiz Esparza) remarkably begins to take on his absent father's role as head of household.
'Abel' is surprisingly comedic for a film with such troubling themes. A parallel can be made to the wonderful 'Lars & The Real Girl', in which Ryan Gosling's delusional character is supported by his local community. Here, the illusion of Abel as the father figure of the household is maintained by his mother, brother and somewhat more reluctantly, his sister. This leads to several laugh out loud moments, ranging from a scene soundtracked by the Village People to another where Abel disapproves of his sister's report card.
These comedic moments contrast the familial crisis that further deepens as the film continues, culminating in a tense chase sequence. This sequence demonstrates actor-turned-director Diego Luna's promising ability behind the camera, as Abel and his younger brother, Paul, negotiate the big bad world, which genuinely does feel big and bad.
It is also testament to Luna's talent that he is able to coax superb performances from each of his main cast members, particularly the sibling pairing of Abel and Paul (Gerardo Ruiz Esparza). This is perhaps unsurprising as they are brothers in real life but nonetheless, they manage to ground an otherwise bizarre story in some kind of heartfelt reality. Special praise must also go to Karina Gidi as the distressed mother, Cecilia, balancing a concern for the family's ailing fortunes and a desperate willingness to accommodate Abel's condition.
I'm not entirely sure whether the frequent shots of differing cloud patterns and landscapes had any deeper meaning but the symbolism I took from those moments summed up the film - the more things change, the more they stay the same. Unfortunately, this does mean that the audience is arguably denied the emotional "rollercoaster" that is threatened but with such outlandishly enjoyable humour on offer, it's difficult to make this too much of a complaint.
'Abel' may only be writer-director Diego Luna's debut feature film but it is one which addresses the difficulty of dealing with mental illness in a believable manner while also gratifying the audience with comedic elements. With a running time of only 85 minutes, this is a film well worth your time.
'Abel' on limited release in UK cinemas now.