Gian Cassini’s Comala is one of at least two documentaries showing at major film festivals this year—another being Karim Aïnouz’s O marinheiro das montanhas, premiering in Cannes—in which a filmmaker digs into the family history tying him to an absent father. Just like Aïnouz in his masterly film, Cassini is decidedly ambivalent about his father, having more than ample reason to be so: his father was a Mexican hitman, or sicario, who walked out on Cassini and his mother.
That word, sicario, crops up more than once in clippings examined by Cassini to describe his father, James “El Jimmy” Oleg Cassini Monarrez: seen here, the word is a needling throwback to the American action-thriller Sicario, whose perspective on Mexican drug wars was hardly a lesson in empathy. Comala takes a richer, more humane route, embedding its elliptical portrait of a wayward father in a sensitive understanding of the drug wars and patriarchal culture that shaped him. Although Cassini, as a director, is too gentle in his approach to force the point, his film adds up to a bitter broadside against a poisonous, and poisoned, type of masculinity.
The context in which Comala must be understood, is the Mexican chapter of the so-called War on Drugs as practiced by the United States: the U.S. is the world’s biggest consumer of cocaine, demand for which has ensured that Mexico, placed between the U.S. and Latin America, is the most common route for illegal drug imports into the country. Since 2006, American efforts have ramped up to tackle this situation, but violence within the industry, mostly between cartels vying for supremacy, has been rife for decades. This is the world that Comala looks at with a delicate, sorrowful eye.
Cassini shows the attraction of the gangster life, looking at several men in his family, from father to uncle to half-brother, whose taste for womanizing and violence led them to embrace that existence, before, in the case of his uncle and brother, dying before their time. The director’s sympathies lie, clearly, with the betrayed wives, single mothers, abandoned daughters and scorned mistresses swept into these men’s lives—and it may be that his perspective as a gay man, referred to somewhat obliquely here, gives him the requisite distance from that world to critique it in full.
As the film begins, Cassini sets out to uncover the father whom he knew so patchily—a man he barely saw throughout his childhood before reconnecting with him as a teenager and then again dropping out of touch. Placing himself in the frame as both filmmaker and subject, the director stumbles occasionally in scenes that enact documentary clichés, such as poring over old letters and photographs, or contemplating the sea’s steady churn during moments of reflection. Nevertheless, Cassini has an eye, and seizes a few startling images on the fly as he sets about his investigation, like a curbside stall of children’s toys featuring a clutter of gaudy pink toys (for girls), and just one black machine gun (for boys).
Cassini’s deceptively probing style as an interlocutor, meanwhile, yields some moving testimonials from his mother and grandmother, and gives his male interviewees enough rope with which to hang themselves. One scene in particular, of an aged relative showing off his weaponry with barely concealed pride and bloodlust, feels quite acidic in its depiction of vain, pig-headed masculinity undimmed by years. At another point, Cassini captures an uncle talking with astonishing candor about his first murder, at the age of fourteen: this is the desperate, pain-ridden world that he has managed to escape.
Comala has a story to tell—one of abandonment and murder—and in true modern documentary style it withholds a few twists and turns until the later stages, albeit without becoming manipulative. This is the story of Jimmy’s involvement with several women, and of Gian’s mother protecting him from his father’s world as best she could. The manner of Jimmy’s death, and Cassini’s reasons for ceasing contact with him, are also alluded to, in ways that make narrative sense, while not feeling especially suspenseful. That want of a driving force can mean that the movie loses its pace and rhythm, dawdling a little over various letters and recollections—and if Comala has a clear perspective, it still lacks a bit of power. A more forceful, stylized brand of filmmaking—Comala, with its naturalistic camerawork and palette, is rather polite in visual terms, with an unobtrusive score—could doubtless have conjured something more piercing.
Still, Comala collects enough riches to make it a sobering experience, and many of its lines or asides may stay with the viewer for some time after watching—such as the observation from Cassini’s uncle, Daker, that Mexico’s drug lords put their children through college with their illegal gains, and with the building works required to build their showy homes, created more jobs than any federal schemes ever did. Another line, “Your father was like me, he loved to fuck,” will doubtless ring in this reviewer’s ears for some time. Ultimately, Comala returns us, as it should, to the mother, and her hopes for her son, which lie in understated counterpoint to the crimes and schemes of the men we’ve met. The film’s final dedication, to Cassini’s young nephew, a man of the future whom we have glimpsed in tender embrace with his uncle, is hopeful and heartrending.