Cannes 2021 review: La Civil (Teodora Mihai)

The rib of a murdered girl is recovered from the soil, reminding us she’s no Eve and this blessed land is no Paradise.

Mexico is living its most violent years in modern history. In 2020, around a hundred people were murdered daily on average. These numbers have been rising ever since Felipe Calderón’s presidential term between 2006 and 2012. Over the last fifteen years, 350,000 people have been assassinated and an additional 80,000 have disappeared. We can assume most of them are dead.

Belgian-Romanian filmmaker Teodora Mihai started visiting Mexico when things were much calmer, as she studied in California during her younger years. After releasing her 2012 documentary Waiting for August, she partnered with screenwriter Habacuc Antonio de Rosario to research subjects for a documentary about victims and orphans of the Mexican wave of violence. It was then that they met Miriam Rodríguez.

La Civil is Cielo, a woman from Northern Mexico who follows the trace of her kidnapped daughter despite intimidation by local drug cartels and apathy from the police corps. As she roams her town, walls promoting candidates from the different ruling parties guarantee a change will come in case they are elected. When she learns that going the institutional route will not work and that her husband is not willing to take any risks, she reaches out to the army. Despite the country’s switching from a right to a centre to an allegedly left-wing party in the past couple of presidential elections, militarization has consistently risen as the main strategy for law enforcement across the republic. The violent methods used by the army in the surveillance of cartel-occupied regions become a way for Cielo to find the truth behind her daughter’s disappearance.

Mihai seems to make an effort to associate the film with both a Mexican and global lineage. While Cristian Mungiu and the Dardenne brothers serve as producers, the ascetic visuals and handheld lensing by Marius Panduru connects with the Romanian New Wave; whereas Cielo’s journey shares an almost mythological nature with those portrayed by Emilie Dequenne and Marion Cotillard in their Dardenne ventures. On a local scope, it is impossible not to link the film with Identifying Features (Fernanda Valadez, 2020) and Netflix documentary The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo, both depictions of the struggle lived through by the mothers of those that disappeared in the culture of violence. The most refreshing gesture is the casting of Daniel García, the lead in I’m No Longer Here, often labeled as a non-actor but nonetheless a true standout among the flawless supporting cast of the film. Arcelia Ramírez, however, deserves a separate mention as the force that effectively carries the feature. Her presence surpasses the role of an actress and embodies the pain lived by an entire nation. The character of Cielo is inspired by Miriam Rodríguez, a woman from the state of Tamaulipas who researched the kidnapping and assassination of her daughter Karen in 2014. In her quest, she often carried a gun and assumed false identities. Her efforts led to the arrest of a dozen people. In May 2017, she was murdered on her doorstep.

La Civil should barely shock or reveal anything to a Mexican audience. Cartel-related violence, police corruption and military savagery have not only been on the news for years now, but often experienced by our families and by ourselves. Local filmmakers have adopted this as the most recurring subject of Mexican fiction and documentaries, with mixed results in terms of depth and audience reach. As Teresa Margolles stated through her 2009 Venice Biennale title: what else could we talk about? Mihai’s work will barely add anything to what’s already been discussed by the local community, most notably Tatiana Huezo, Everardo González and writer Fernanda Melchor (in addition to Valadez and Margolles). So what is the pertinence of a work like this, especially coming from abroad? First, it serves as an homage – which could’ve been more straightforward – to the memory of Miriam Rodríguez. Secondly, it opens a possibility of reaching a wider, perhaps less-aware global audience, to discuss the importance of drug regulation in order to reduce the risk of the formation of narco-states across the world. And lastly, it joins a valuable filmography surveying gender and armed conflicts, both in front of and behind the camera.