Berlinale 2019 Review: Tremors (Jayro Bustamante)

A strong condemnation of the church as the instigator of hatred towards same-sex love and a both horrific and almost comical look at the insanity that is conversion therapy, Jayro Bustamante’s second film Tremors is clear about its intentions and does not hide its anger or contempt. That does not make it a better film, but combined with a consistently grimy visual style and an immersive sound design it does make for an intense experience. Bustamante, whose debut feature Ixcanul won the Alfred Bauer Prize in the Berlinale competition four years ago, returned to the festival in the more low-key Panorama sidebar. And while Tremors is decidedly more grounded than Mayan fable Ixcanul, the decision to deny the film a competition slot remains puzzling. It may lose some steam in the final stretch, but Tremors is a strong and daring film in which every scene has weight.

Earthshaking. That is the only way to describe the bombshell that successful consultant Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager), married with two young kids, drops on his family. In a rain-soaked and darkness-filled opening scene Pablo’s shell-shocked relatives are waiting for him to come home, anxious for reasons that initially are not clear. Something terrible has befallen him, that much is obvious, but only after he arrives and is confronted does it become clear: Pablo has been outed as gay. As tensions rise in the upper-class mansion an earthquake symbolizes the rupture between Pablo and his family.

Soon after, Pablo’s well-intentioned plan of staying on good terms with his wife Isa (Diane Bathen) so he can enjoy the company of his children starts to unravel. In a society as deeply religious as the Guatemalan, his sexual orientation has severe repercussions, as Pablo soon finds out when he loses his jobs, his kids and everything that used to be his life. His lover Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadúa) supports him up to a point, but his carefree attitude around Pablo makes him never feel at home in his new apartment. Desperately trying to tie his two worlds together, Pablo’s love for his children finally makes him succumb to a last-and-lowest-ditch effort to be part of their life: he submits to conversion therapy.

It is at this point that the film loses focus, as it puts emphasis on the ridiculous practices of the religious zealots-slash-charlatans that have dug their claws into Pablo. They are turned into cartoonish bad guys, which diminishes the gravity of the dilemma Pablo is facing. Bustamante manages to pull it together in the final scenes, ending the film on an ambiguous shot, but the final act could have used some rewrites. As it is, you understand Pablo’s inner turmoil intellectually, but for a film that burned with intensity and an almost carnal sensuality the humiliation he has to go through cannot be felt as deeply as the anger that preceded it when his family ostracized him.

Where Tremors shines, however, is in its marriage of form and content. Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga’s dusty washed-out medium shots on a widescreen canvas manage to cramp Pablo in but also isolate him as if he was alone in the world with its weight on his shoulders. The oppressive sound design by the trio of Eduardo Cáceres, Gilles Benardeau, and Julien Cloquet underlines this representation of Pablo’s psyche even more. And Olyslager’s withheld performance seals the deal. In all this makes Tremors not an easy film to watch, and Bustamante clearly has an axe to grind, but he stays just clear of being too preachy and delivers with Tremors a film that cements him as a director whose new work one should always look out for.