Venice 2021 review: The Hole in the Fence (Joaquin del Paso)

“A terrifying psychological drama by revolutionary young Mexican filmmaker Joaquin del Paso, who takes on an ambitious story that blends captivating coming-of-age drama with atmospheric social horror, and presents us with a disquieting image of our world.”

Somewhere in the Mexican countryside is a religious camp, which every year hosts a group of boys from elite private schools with the intention of allowing them to get to know one another as they are prepared for their journey into adulthood, facilitated through a combination of prayer sessions and physical activities, all under the watchful eyes of their stern counsellors. Surrounding the camp is a fence that apparently is there to protect the residents from the dangers that lurk beyond it – but it doesn’t take long for the visitors to realize that the fence is not there to keep malice out, but rather to trap innocence in. This is the foundation for The Hole in the Fence (El hoyo en la cerca), a terrifying psychological drama by revolutionary young Mexican filmmaker Joaquin del Paso, who takes on an ambitious story that blends captivating coming-of-age drama with atmospheric social horror, and presents us with a disquieting image of our world. Deeply complex and filled with unforgettable imagery, drawn from both an audacious premise and strong directorial flourishes, del Paso manages to create a film capable of being both breathtaking and disturbing, often in tandem, as he voyages to the darkest depths of the human condition.

From the first picturesque moments of this film we can immediately tell that terror is lurking just out of sight, patiently waiting to envelop the idyllic landscape that serves as the stage for this unnerving drama. Moving away from the preconceived notion that the pastoral immediately suggests peacefulness, the director immerses the viewer in an environment that looks beautiful but harbours deep and disturbing secrets, haunted by the memories of those who didn’t manage to escape, feared by those that did. Early on in The Hole in the Fence, the characters come to learn of mysterious ‘incidents’ that have recently occurred on the other side of the barrier that separates their quiet camp from the apparently unexplored wilderness beyond – and as the film progresses it becomes clear that this is overt foreshadowing, rather than just the cautionary mention of random events. The director establishes an atmosphere of encroaching dread, reflected in the stunning filmmaking, which contrasts the unflinching terror experienced by the young protagonists with the striking imagery of the gorgeous vistas in which they’re trapped. The frequently recurring words “dios está aquí” that appear throughout the film start to feel less like a source of comfort and guidance, and more a warning to the characters of the never-ending omnipotence of some higher authority, whether celestial or of the flesh, that has imprisoned them in this horrifying environment, as a means to satiate their morally opaque intentions.

However, as convenient as it would be to attribute the strangeness of The Hole in the Fence to the director’s apparent interest in this form of disorienting, surreal horror, this is still a film with a social message at its core. It challenges the playful adage of “boys will be boys” by presenting us with a harrowing account of the dangers of youthful masculinity when it is harnessed for the bidding of others, rather than used to push them towards functional adulthood. The presence of these feral young men and their daily activities in this isolated environment finds the film navigating the narrow boundary between mischief and barbaric practices, which only becomes increasingly blurred as the film progresses and these characters start to lose their innocence. Throughout the film, del Paso implies that when order is challenged, unhinged savagery will prevail, and through being thrust into this nightmarish version of their world, where decorum is abandoned in favour of animalistic instincts and the need to survive, these teenagers start looking less like humans and instead blend into their ghostly environment, ferocious predators prowling the rough terrain, seeking out their prey. This all converges into a haunting metaphor for the process of maturing and the steps some take in the journey to ‘becoming’ a man, a concept that anchors the film and provides the contrast between the innocent students and their sinister counsellors. Their intentions are clearly far from pure, which inspires the unrestrained terror in which the film is rooted.

The less one knows about the specific plot mechanics of The Hole in the Fence, the more effective the film is for the viewer, since it can frequently shock us with many horrifying details as the story unravels into this deeply disconcerting psychological thriller. There is a growing sense of unease throughout the film, which culminates in a terror-fueled third act that is both horrific and awe-inspiring in its boldness. This is a film where the tranquility of the natural world and the innocence of youth are disrupted by the maniacal desires of sadistic individuals who utilize their unrestrained power to take control of fragile young minds and bodies. It is structured as a combination of childish campfire stories and unhinged psychological horror, turning this film into a more deranged, socially charged version of The Lord of the Flies, another example of the loss of order resulting in a descent into violent barbarism. Eventually, the dreamlike veneer of this film erodes, and all we are left with is a shocking, sobering cautionary tale that seeks to unearth the dark realities of the modern world, using the comforting concept of brotherhood to tell a harrowing story of immorality, betrayal and perversion, the loss of innocence being the main propellant for this film, and its general message surrounding the extent to which society is often built on horrifying deeds and desires, from which there is very little chance of escape.