Amat Escalante is no stranger to the sociopolitical, with movies like Los Bastardos and Heli, and this makes me want to say The Untamed (La region salvaje) is no different. It is no different in terms of its urgent commentary on a sociopolitical theme – more on this later – but it is very different in presentation and genre; a Lynchian-sci-fi-body-horror that evokes Zulawski’s Possession in subject, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in presentation, and Lovecraftian horror in tone. So, it’s not very easy to pin down and talk about, but let’s try.
I first saw The Untamed at Bergen International Film Festival in September, and as is usually the case with fresh festival releases (it premiered in Mexico four months earlier), you don’t know very much going in. All I personally knew was that Escalante directed it, and that it was a “Lynchian drug-trip” and “Lovecraft meets Tarkovsky.” This did not prepare me for it in any way.
The Untamed is Escalante’s confrontation of the misogyny, homophobia and conservative understandings of sex and pleasure he sees reflected in his home-country of Mexico, which is sadly and painfully traceable in the world at large. The movie follows a small cast of characters; a husband and wife, Angel (Jesus Meza) and Ale (Ruth Ramos); and her brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), who treats a wounded woman named Veronica (Simone Bucio) at the local hospital. The most “rooted” parts of Escalante’s latest effort comes through Fabian’s sexual orientation, which it is unclear whether his sister knows about or not. However, her husband Angel, who comes of as your typical macho, homophobic (probably xenophobic) alpha-male, does know that Fabian is gay and – unbeknownst to Ale – is in a sexual relationship with him. Neither Ale nor Fabian seems very impressed with Angel in bed.
In any other movie this could have been the foundation for an important piece of social realism, but Escalante has more to say, and it is here that the sci-fi and more abstract comparisons come into play. It is a difficult one to talk about, because it’s best experienced blind, but I will say that it examines sexual pleasure, and the very real – but often neglected – bond between sex and violence and death through the prism of some sort of cosmological horror. Escalante does this without changing his distinct tone, however, which is why it works so well. It balances nicely between genre movie and social-realism, and as the shock and surprise of certain scenes – and possible consequential laughter of said scenes – resides, it begins to stir in you and it stays there for a long time.
It has been a truly… interesting year for Mexican cinema with The Untamed and and Emiliano Rocha Minter’s We are the Flesh (truly the most unique experience of 2016, which can best be described as the reincarnation of Georges Bataille). The Untamed is no less strange or memorable, with its very rich and textured exteriors of the Mexican countryside; the minimalistic, but deeply unsettling score; the playfulness of the camera, that can switch from the patience of Haneke to the aura of Raygadas’ lenses* in a second. There are many names pulled into this review, but when it all comes down to it, it is undeniably Escalantean, and perhaps it is the best he has done. So far.
*I say that, having only seen Post Tenebras Lux