Winner of the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the Guatemalan drama José is an astute look at male sexuality in a culture that’s infused with machismo. This is an earthy, honest story using observational filmmaking to touch on big themes without ever being preachy. Chinese-born American filmmaker Li Cheng cleverly lets the plot unfold in such a subtle way that the movie has a documentary feel to it.
The title character José (Enrique Salanic) is a 19-year-old living with his single mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) and various siblings in Guatemala City. The family is struggling to make a living as the gap between rich and poor widens. And José also bristles against the deep-seated religious culture, in which he has learned to hide the fact that he’s gay. He limits physical encounters to strangers he meets on a phone app, and no one knows his secret. Then he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), a construction worker from the countryside who has taken a job in the city. As they fall in love, the much more open Luis asks José to run away with him. But José feels like he can’t abandon his mother.
Even deeper, after growing up in this hyper-religious world, José believes that he is not entitled to a romantic happy ever after. So the film’s arc follows him as he begins to discover that maybe he has a choice in the matter. When Luis disappears, José has to make a choice: does he go back to his previous life, or does he risk it all to try to find Luis? This is presented with a matter-of-fact honesty that takes the audience aback, especially because it’s never as simple as most movies make it.
Director Cheng and cinematographer Paolo Giron skilfully place the characters within the context of this bustling city with its powerful traditions. It’s shot with dramatic wide-screen images that cleverly contrast the pristine countryside with the grubby urban sprawl. And most scenes are dialogue-free, tracking the story through glances and touches that beautifully convey thoughts, feelings and attitudes. In most ways, it feels more like a slice-of-life than a constructed narrative, and this is what allows it to worm its way so deeply under the skin.
The actors deliver remarkably relaxed, open-handed performances, so much so that the intimate moments turn the audience into voyeurs. The connection between José and Luis is visually strong, so tight that they don’t need to say much. So when Luis leaves, the audience feels his absence as strongly as José does. This gives Salanic some astonishing scenes to play as he hides his pain from his mother, beautifully played by Mota as a woman whose entire life is informed by her faith, including her desire that her children follow the same path.
Along the way, there are some sideplots that add additional texture to the story, touching related topics such as criminality, natural disasters and economic injustice. As a poor gay man, José doesn’t seem to have a chance! And yet, this series of events may finally push him to take control of his future. And this is where the film quietly finds its message of hope.