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Teodora Ana Mihai's "La Civil" opens with a luminous medium close-up of a teenage girl named Laura, played here by Denisse Azpilcueta. On her way to a date with her boyfriend Lisander, Laura banters with her mom Cielo, goes coy when asked whether she’s cleaned her room, tells Mom an Adam-and-Eve-in Mexico joke, and tries out her lipstick on her good-natured but clearly mildly exasperated parent. And off she goes.
Only minutes later, Cielo, played by the extraordinary Arcelia Ramirez, is driving when an SUV cuts her off. Out of it steps a smirking, lethally confident teenager, who we will later know as El Puma, who instructs her to meet her at a restaurant if she wants to see Laura again. She complies and is told to deliver 150,000 pesos and her estranged husband’s pickup truck the next day.
And so it begins. If you didn’t know it already, you’ll learn from this film that in Northern Mexico—where the movie is set; no further specifics are given—kidnapping is, for all intents and purposes, an industry, and that so-called “cartels” control a lot more than drugs. As loathsome as the teen who arranged Laura’s kidnapping is—and he’s pretty loathsome in a vivid performance by Daniel Garcia—he’s more or less a sociopathic cog in a horrific system. One that, as this quietly unrelenting film depicts, is all but tolerated by official law enforcement out of a combination of indifference, exhaustion, and corruption.
After confronting the aforementioned estranged husband Gustavo, whose hotsy-totsy new girlfriend Rosy is the definition of sketchy, the two put together what they have and deliver it—a pickup truck and all. As friends tell them, there’s just nothing else to be done. Of course, El Puma and his smirky associates don’t live up to their part of the bargain. Cielo goes through conventional circuits almost half-heartedly. And then, after an inadvertent tip from a funeral director—whose place of business is now both a dumping ground for the police’s corpse overflow and a target of extortion for the cartels—she starts surveilling cartel folk. A chance encounter with an army brigade yields her, at first, nothing but a business card. But then it earns a visit from a possibly rogue, or just independent—who knows in this infernal mess?—commander, Lieutenant Lamarque (Jorge J. Jiménez). He laps up the data Cielo has gathered and offers her rides on their night raids, where the Army proves as ruthless and lawless as the cartel kids.
This movie grabs you by the heart quickly and doesn’t let up the stress for any significant amount of time. But it does so by very quiet means. There’s no music score to pump you up or down. Director Mihai favors long handheld takes that put you with the characters. Her style is slightly reminiscent of that of the Belgian Dardennes brothers, who, as it happens, are among the movie’s executive producers.
So many of these abduction stories are never resolved that, as viewers here, we’re almost reflexively conditioned not to get answers. As it happens, that’s not entirely the case. Cielo’s doggedness enables her to put together many pieces of the puzzle—including the extremely petty and macho reason El Puma targeted Laura in the first place—and that layer of narrative complexity also enriches the already strong movie. Its moral complexity, exemplified in its final minutes, is also exemplary.
Now playing in select theaters.
Arcelia Ramírez as Cielo
Álvaro Guerrero as Gustavo
Jorge A. Jimenez as Lamarque
Ayelén Muzo as Robles
Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño as El Puma
Eligio Meléndez as Quique
Manuel Villegas as Lisandro