Berlinale 2022 review: Robe of Gems (Natalia López Gallardo)

“With valuable contributions from her first-rate cast and crew, López Gallardo creates a haunting world marked by violence, loss, and uncertainty.”

Early in Robe of Gems, the transfixing and confident debut feature by Natalia López Gallardo, we see a group of kids discussing why their grandmother abandoned her large country villa whose swimming pool keeps them mildly entertained for an idle afternoon. One of them says the house was flooded, another adds that it was invaded by snakes. Nobody is entirely sure what really happened, but they all have vague ideas about something tragic, unsettling, or dangerous. This scene sets the tone for Robe of Gems, which slowly but methodically makes its audience aware of the harrowing events that consistently take place in its provincial milieu, and establishes a sustained sense of unease without explaining the exact cause of terror that runs through the entire film. A deserving winner of the Silver Bear Jury Prize in the Berlinale’s main competition, this unusual mood piece should enjoy an extensive run on the festival circuit before finding its way to arthouse venues around the world.

López Gallardo crafts an immersive world through the elliptical stories of three women in rural Mexico. Isabel, who inherits the villa from her mother, comes to the area with her two children in the aftermath of some marital problems and learns that her maid María’s sister has gone missing. This is a common occurrence in the unforgiving rural setting of the film, with many other disappearances reported during a memorable scene set in a crowded police station. The third main character is one of those police officers, a woman named Torta, whose son Adán is involved with the cartel that terrorizes everyone in the region. Robe of Gems is less interested in what happens to these characters than the cumulative psychological effect of their experiences (presented in dreamlike and fragmented fashion) on the viewer. Throughout the film, López Gallardo withholds key pieces of information, but finds a myriad of ways to make those narrative gaps meaningful. One character asks for a favor, but we don’t learn what that favor really entails. Notable temporal jumps are mentioned in passing, with a character said to have been bed-ridden for three weeks while another one goes missing for a full week before we even hear about his disappearance. Even the most harrowing scene in the film, depicting a sudden kidnapping and its brutal aftermath, includes several ellipses, with the perpetrators of the crime or the exact nature of their actions left mostly off-screen.

In the absence of key narrative information, López Gallardo utilizes a multitude of tools to give each scene a purpose beyond moving the story forward. Characters are often filmed from behind a window or another form of obstruction that makes it impossible for us to hear their conversations. Dialogue exchanges occur off-screen with only unoccupied locations or body fragments providing seemingly inconsequential visual accompaniment. Sound bridges give the film a strange sense of fluidity as it becomes difficult to pinpoint where individual scenes begin and end. Conversations play out in sequences presented from a single angle, denying the audience the comfort of an intuitive reverse shot. The combined effect of all these techniques is a strong feeling of looming or omnipresent danger, which manages to capture something fundamental about cartel violence, corruption, and societal malaise.

López Gallardo’s approach is both a strength and a source of frustration. On one hand, it is admirable that a first-time director can bring such a singular and fully formed vision to a story that has been told multiple times before. Viewers familiar with a recent selection of festival hits from Mexico may find stories about drug cartels, senseless violence, kidnappings, and disappearances excessively familiar. But what often turns into either emotionally manipulative or graphically violent tales of misery in lesser films becomes a sophisticated analysis of a system that keeps destroying and reconstructing itself in Robe of Gems. On the other hand, the carefully calibrated ambiguity of the film and its unwillingness to commit to any of its characters or storylines may alienate some viewers. More importantly, the numbing effect caused by the film’s unconventional design may desensitize audiences to violence or overemphasize how common, maybe even banal, this grave situation has become.

Robe of Gems features several beautifully composed images even though their meaning may be elusive. This is a superbly crafted film with impressive cinematography, a rich soundscape, and a strong ensemble. With valuable contributions from her first-rate cast and crew, López Gallardo creates a haunting world marked by violence, loss, and uncertainty. Her methods keep the audience at arm’s length and prove to be quite challenging at times, but the end result is a significant achievement that deserves to be widely seen and discussed.