SSIFF 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 necessarily 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’s debut feature Ixcanul won the Alfred Bauer Prize in Berlin, and now four years later the young Guatemalan director is suddenly back with not one but two films, which are both playing here in San Sebastian. Technically his second film, Tremors, is decidedly more grounded than Mayan fable Ixcanul, a strong and daring film in which every scene has weight (also check out Marc van de Klashorst’s rave review for his third film, La Llorona, which played in Venice’s Giornate degli Autori).

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 starts to shift to the ridiculous practices of the religious zealots-slash-charlatans that have dug their claws into Pablo. Their intense practices (sadly, gay conversion therapies like these are a real thing) and the way they impress Pablo’s ‘failure’ on him underscore the complexity and pressure of the dilemma Pablo is facing. Bustamante pulls his existential crisis together in the final scenes, ending the film on an ambiguous shot, punctuating a final act that is as much sobering as it is infuriating. Sobering because one understands Pablo’s inner turmoil intellectually, but infuriating because the film’s brooding intensity and almost carnal sensuality makes you feel the humiliation he has to go through as deeply as the anger that preceded it when his family ostracized him.

Where Tremors shines most brightly, 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 fabulous withheld performance seals the deal, as he tracks Pablo’s grim path from resistance to confusion and finally resignation through an impressive body language. Pablo is a man of few words, but Olyslager’s eyes tell the full story of what is going on in this man’s battered mind. Tremors is 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 the double-header of Tremors and La Llorona two films that cement him as a director whose new work one should always look out for.