Morelia 2023 review: Valentina or The Serenity (Ángeles Cruz)

“A refreshing take on death and grief by an industry mostly focused on the violent cartel-related deaths that affect the country.”

Ángeles Cruz started her journey in film as an actress in the mid ’90s, in the midst of an economic crisis that sunk the Mexican film industry into its lowest numbers since the birth of the artform. Despite these conditions she managed to launch her career – including a Guldbagge-nominated lead role in Swedish film Pumans Dotter – into the 2000s, alternating between film and television productions that often typecast her in supporting roles defined by her ethnicity. Ángeles then decided to narrate her own stories, releasing three short films since 2012 and her first feature Nudo Mixteco (Mixteca Knot) in 2021, all to critical acclaim. As a filmmaker, Cruz has focused on female-centered stories through her gaze as a lesbian and indigenous person. For her second feature, Valentina o La Serenidad (Valentina or The Serenity), Cruz turns her attention to the way mourning is experienced by a child.

Valentina (Danaé Ahuja Aparicio) lives in a scarcely populated area of the Mixteca mountains in the state of Oaxaca as the youngest of three children of a middle-aged couple. One day, as she plays with her best friend Pedro, she learns her father has had an accident while running errands that included buying a doll Valentina asked for, and he has drowned as a result of it. As her community engages in the traditional funeral rituals to honor her father, Valentina enters a stage of denial, constantly asking when her father is coming back. The girl’s reaction affects her mother (Myriam Bravo), who is processing the death of her partner and seems unable to deal with the denial expressed by her youngest child. Valentina starts skipping her distantly located school in the quest to find her dad, including plunging into the river to call him back from under the surface. What follows is a girl’s journey, slowly coming to grips with the departure of a beloved parent through remembrance and collective support. Valentina remembers her father through handmade comics he drew for her which starred a thunder-shaped hero named Kandi. The thunder’s motto is her father’s epilogue: it is only silence that accompanies us.

Cruz has expressed that this film is mostly a result of her personal process during the COVID years and the transformed sense of grief we all probably got from the pandemic. Through playful camerawork and a witty score by Alejandra Hernández and Rubén Luengas, Cruz manages to provide the film with a purity that is only comparable to a child’s perspective on its surrounding world. The relationship with death is regarded as one of the most peculiar traits across the different cultures inhabiting Mexico, and the film, set in a Mixteca community facing the loss of their indigenous language, offers a refreshing take on death and grief by an industry mostly focused on the violent cartel-related deaths that affect the country.