Summoning nature’s earth-shaking forces — first volcanic eruptions, now earthquakes — to serve as resounding signifiers of instability, Guatemalan auteur Jayro Bustamante’s two features to date roar as sobering assessments of systematic marginalization in a society unwilling to broaden its viciously narrow status quo. First, “Ixcanul” objected to corrosive misogyny and racism; now homophobia is the target in his sophomore social drama “Tremors,” which had its North American premiere last March at the Miami Film Festival and opens theatrically Friday.
Bustamante’s social pariah, a white man from the upper crust of society, is far removed, at least in obvious parallels, from the teenage indigenous woman chastised by her community for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the director’s debut. Their personal hells, however, emanate from the same phallocentric well of hatred. In both instances, Bustamante lets his embattled protagonists unravel without the empty promise of a fortunate resolution.
A masculine fellow by all traditional parameters, Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) has attained all the essential components for the construction of a convincing façade, one that upholds the patriarchal ideal of a pristine heterosexual life. It’s precisely because he’s excelled for years in the role of a middle-aged office worker with a wife and two kids that, when he’s outed as a gay man, his ultra-religious family reacts in outrage. The lie upon which his identity was built instantly crumbles, because the tremors are both literally seismic and metaphorically personal.
As if running away from bright colors the way the film’s protagonist does so from his truth, DP Luis Armando Arteaga paints melancholically elegant frames in guilt and frustration, using oppressively drab lighting and subdued hues. The sanitized interiors of churches and affluent residences contrast with the disheveled locations as Pablo’s “clandestine” desires emerge. Outside, Guatemala City — dressed in gray skies and urban grittiness — ensures there is no room for exoticism.
Olyslager’s eyes project Pablo’s plea for compassion when facing his estranged spouse Isa (Diane Bathen), who has dangerously equated his sexual orientation with pedophilia to punish him professionally; his hopeless disbelief when his mother wishes destruction upon him so that he will repent; and the futile appearance of courage early on, when the assertive Francisco (Mauricio Armas) reassures him they can be together. Lightness only comes briefly with “Ixcanul” actress María Telón, present here as Pablo’s housekeeper and his only ally within his now off-limits house.
Emotionally repressed, Pablo wallows in fearful anguish, unable to cope with his loved ones’ cruel rejection guised as concern for his soul. Olyslager internalizes such discreet suffering and expresses it only in longing gazes and painful frowns, resulting in a magnificent performance that should elevate the actor’s stature internationally. Drowning in conflicting messaging and guided solely by his desire to see his children, Pablo is soon dragged away from any semblance of freedom and back into the claws of religious dogma.
His mental state is not dissimilar to a broken vase whose pieces have been put back together. Even if the reassembling of his false code-abiding persona were achieved with the strongest of Christian adhesives, the cracks would still show. Pablo’s fragile standing in his role as a straight Evangelical won’t withstand the next inevitable tremor that rattles it and that terrifies him. Each time the ground rumbles, as does his conviction.
In the movie’s most upsetting sequences, Bustamante approaches conversion therapy with stark pragmatism, even during the most harrowing of humiliations. His take turns out distinctively more distressing than those in the recent American features “Boy Erased” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”
This is the case not only as a result of the age gap, geographical specificity, or Pablo being a father, but thanks to first-time actress Sabrina De La Hoz, who plays a female pastor so convinced that her mission is righteous that she doesn’t hold back on degrading and dehumanizing the sinners under her command. It’s the type of villainous part Meryl Streep would get an Oscar for, but De La Hoz makes it truly her own with stern certitude.
Tragically, Pablo’s inescapable closet is as big as his country and as dark as the inside of the buried coffin where his hopes for happiness lie dead. In that tenebrous space where light cannot penetrate, but where he’s conditionally allowed to exist, he begs for the acceptance of those who would rather see him perish than deviate from the norm. It’s devastating to witness as he stabs himself with an invisible, yet very hurtful, dagger laced in Bible verses misconstrued to condemn him.
To its very last moment, “Tremors” is a prodigiously gut-wrenching demand for change; the film isn’t kindly asking for tolerance but bluntly exposing the torment inflicted in the name of a prejudiced God. It’s a magnificently unflinching film from a master director in the making, whose thunderous strength will surely make waves in Bustamante’s Central American homeland and abroad.