Venice 2021 review: La caja (Lorenzo Vigas)

La caja is a slight disappointment after the triumph that was Desde allá, even if Vigas remains an interesting director with something to say.”

An absent father (or sometimes even both parents) is not an uncommon situation for children growing up in Latin America. Even if just away for work in another part of the country, but more often than not simply because they are dead. La caja (The Box), Lorenzo Vigas’ follow-up to his Golden Lion-winning debut feature Desde allá (From Afar, 2015), concludes a trilogy on this very subject of absent fathers and the search for a replacement figure, a trilogy that Vigas started with the short Los elefantes nunca olvidan (2004). Is it mere chance that a continent where these missing father figures are a reality of life has seen such a rise in strong authoritarian leaders? Could it be that for many fatherless sons they fill a void?

Hatzín (Hatzín Navarrete), a teen boy from Mexico City, travels north to collect the remains of his father which were found in a mass grave out in the desert. When he sees Mario (Hernán Mendoza) he believes there was a mix-up with the box of remains, as the man reminds him of his father. Following Mario around and ignoring the man’s attempts to shake him off, he is eventually taken in and starts working for his new father figure. Mario hustles people to work in the many factories and sweatshops dotting the landscape of North Mexico. Since Hatzín has been schooled and can read and write he quickly gains the trust of Mario, and starts to feel at home in his new place. Over time, however, Mario turns out to be a dubious character, and Hatzín’s conscience forces him to decide between accepting the remains in the box as his father and returning to the grandmother that raised him, thereby betraying Mario, or staying on with his newfound father and his shady dealings.

The question that hangs over La caja for the longest time is whether Mario is actually Hatzín’s father or not. In the end it doesn’t really matter, because actions are more important than biology, Vigas seemingly says. Desde allá had a similar relationship, with Alfredo Castro’s character torn between his own estranged father that he sees from afar, and he himself being a father figure for a young man he initially pays for pleasure. Whether it’s the harsh sunlight in the Mexican desert or the stronger acting by Castro and his surrogate son Luis Silva, it seems La caja is unlikely to repeat the success of Vigas’ debut, lacking the warmth and the urgency of that first feature. Navarrete’s blank, emotionless stare doesn’t quite cut it, leaving the heavy lifting to Mendoza, whose character at least has a better arc than Navarrete’s protagonist.

Where La caja works better is in its depiction of the exploitation of Mexico’s migrant workers. With contracts not honored, longer hours than agreed upon, and any protest ruthlessly being beaten down, the film highlights the poor position of these people, often parents far away from home trying to make money for their families (incidentally also the subject of another film set in South America playing on the same day, Mother Lode by Matteo Martone; as said, it’s a trans-continental plague). And thus the cycle of disrupted families continues. It is here that La caja really works, but unfortunately these issues are put on the sidelines for the more personal story at the heart of the film, a story that as told has less political power than Vigas seems to think. This makes La caja a slight disappointment after the triumph that was Desde allá, even if Vigas remains an interesting director with something to say.