Filmmaker Diego Luna is known mainly to American audiences as the baby-faced hottie who, with Gabriel Garcia-Bernal, took us on a sexy road trip in “Y Tu Mama Tambien” some years back.
This year he is at the festival with his first feature film, “Abel,” a touching and delicate tale of a nine-year-old boy who takes refuge in the fantasy that he is an adult. Christopher Ruiz-Esparza indeed plays the role of the father in a family where the real father has abandoned them.
The film is very far from the stereotypes of Mexican culture more familiar to American audiences, rooted in the psychological fault lines of childhood and tenderly told by Luna.
But it is mainly supported by an extraordinary debut performance by the young Ruiz-Esparza, who was chosen out of dozens of candidates with whom Luna worked to find the right child for his vision. Luna ran studio classes for child actors for a year, and found Ruiz-Esparza – who had never previously acted there. They worked together for five months to build the character of a child who dresses like a man, speaks like a man with the poignant naivete of a child.
(In fact, his younger brother is played by Gerardo, Ruiz-Esparza’s actual brother.)
Luna explains in the movie’s production notes that the story springs from his own childhood experiences. “A first film is necessarily autobiographical,” he said. “My mother died when I was two, and I have no memories of her. So it wasn’t like I knew her and lost her, I lived without my mother from my earliest childhood.”
And as a result, he said, his father treated him like an adult from a very young age; Luna began to work at age six: “I was like an adult in some ways, but in others, I was just a child.”
The film was produced (I take this to mean financed) by John Malkovich, and Luna’s “Y Tu Mama” friend Garcia-Bernal, and is up for sale at the festival.