SSIFF 2021 review: Jesús López (Maximiliano Schonfeld)

“Jesús López orbits around the psychological impact of trauma, which is often neglected in films that offer more cursory analyses of the mourning process.”

“Maybe the only way to get away from here is dying.”

There is a concept in psychology known as the “present-absent”, which has filtered into the world of art through its relation to the deepest tenets of trauma. After a loss, it is common for someone to feel as if their loved one still lingers, their absence being so strong it feels as if they are still present in the lives of those who knew them. This is the foundation for Jesús López¸ an enthralling drama by Maximiliano Schonfeld in his third narrative feature outing. The film tells the story of Abel, a young man visiting the family of his recently deceased cousin (a promising racecar driver who died after a tragic accident), slowly finding himself becoming the canvas on which parents and siblings paint their trauma-fueled memories, to the point where he becomes the new version of his cousin. Navigating some very deep waters, facilitated by a harsh but meaningful approach to exploring the lives of people trying to continue in the aftermath of a tragedy, Jesús López is an impressive film that affords us a glimpse into the experiences many face as the result of an unprecedented accident that robbed them not only of a family member, but of their collective livelihood.

Death is somehow simultaneously the most challenging concept in the history of philosophy, as well as one of the most oft-visited subjects in art. Schonfeld offers his own views on the ultimate inevitability through the perspective of a close-knit family processing their loss. It leads to quite an unconventional film, but one that facilitates some very deep conversations around the volatility of life and the challenges that come when faced with losing someone before their time. Jesús López orbits around the psychological impact of trauma, which is often neglected in films that offer more cursory analyses of the mourning process. Grief is not restricted solely to melancholy memories, but can take the form of erratic behaviour and delusions, and while this film may not succumb to the simmering peculiarity in how it portrays the family mentally and emotionally, it does often border on mystifying, an intentional choice that situates the viewer in this abstract version of the world and compels us to explore an unusual portrayal of a family trying to make sense of life after loss.

Filtering the story through the eyes of Abel was a fascinating decision, since it affords the film the opportunity to put some distance between the characters while still binding them together in terms of their familial connection. Jesús López is about a young man undergoing an existential crisis as he questions his own identity, realizing that he is gradually being transformed into his deceased cousin. It starts with him sleeping in his cousin’s bed and wearing his clothes, and converging into a full transformation into the titular character, one of the several bewildering but effective flights of fancy. The elliptical structure of the film, coupled with the thrilling climax, conveys the cliched concept of history ultimately repeating itself. He is forced to live in the shadow of the deceased, to the point where he starts to mentally and psychically take on the form, becoming the living reincarnation of his late cousin, which appears to be a way for the film to explore his disillusioned psychological state. He is a flawed young man who finds an opportunity for salvation through becoming the avatar of his cousin – but his gradual transformation doesn’t yield the results he or the rest of the family initially imagined, as evidenced by the shocking final scene that invokes the cyclical nature of the human condition.

Jesús López is not merely about marinating in the memory of those who have left us, but more a metaphysical tale of someone transforming into the ideal version of the past, both as a means for the family to process their loss, and a way for the individual to overcome their own shortcomings by becoming another version of someone whose only imperfection was that he departed the world far too soon. This film is emotionally bleak and distant and can often be extremely difficult to watch – the depiction of this family’s mourning is raw and visceral, and simmering with a haunting honesty that is often missing in more trite representations of grief. However, Schonfeld did make a film that is filled with meaning, the director carefully manipulating our understanding of reality to convey the disconcerting message at the heart of the story. There are many ways that Jesús López can be interpreted, with the central intention of the film being to challenge our notions of the narrow boundary between reality and conjecture. It converges into this harrowing but poignant portrayal of grief, which ventures deep into the human condition and emerges layered with deep, sorrowful meaning and provocative content, which all leads to the process of decoding this mystifying but beautiful psychological drama.