Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) seems to have it all. With his beautiful family and a respected job in finance, the fortysomething patriarch is the envy of his community, but as Tremors (Temblores) opens, we learn that Pablo has done something which threatens the very foundations of his world, much like the titular tremors that plague Guatemala City.
For a surprisingly large chunk of Tremors (Temblores), the nature of Pablo’s ‘crime’ remains unclear, and when we do finally learn that he’s left his wife (Diane Bathen) for another man, this further underlines the religious intolerance that still characterises the Catholic world of Guatemala.
Pablo’s mother believes that the timing of these tremors cannot be a coincidence, using “God’s punishment” as further evidence that her son’s love for Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadúa) is one of sin. In reality though, these seismic events hint instead at the fragility of the upper class and outdated views on sexuality that threaten to tear Pablo’s life asunder.
Following the success of Ixcanul (Volcano) in 2015, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante trades in the rural trappings of his debut for an urban cityscape that still taps into the symbolic power of geology for a second time. Through this lens, cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga effectively contrasts the affluent sterility of Pablo’s family home with the scrappy and yet somehow more inviting interior of the run-down apartment he shares with Francisco.
Through sombre and somewhat oppressive hues, Tremors (Temblores) takes a more mature approach to the now well-worn themes found in other recent gay conversion stories like Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. These young American protagonists have plenty to lose too, but at least they don’t have the responsibility of looking after their own children to consider as well. Because of this, Pablo’s inner conflict is even more engaging, thanks also to a nuanced performance from Olyslager who painfully conveys his character’s guilt and shame without ever resorting to melodrama.
At one point, Pablo’s boy asks his sister whether he will “catch the same disease” as his father. Her answer? “Maybe, only men can catch it.” Such naivety would be humorous if not so painfully ignorant, a quality which is reflected also in the machinations of the Catholic gay conversion scheme that Pablo later enrols himself in. Forcing the men to shower together and even wrestle semi-naked highlights the backward views held by these people in power, but one particularly painful moment also reminds audiences of the true horrors perpetrated by such operations.
Bustamante’s screenplay makes some interesting choices that sets Tremors (Temblores) apart from other films of its ilk, most notably in the way it avoids discussing Pablo’s homosexuality entirely for a good third of the film’s running time. The problem with this is that the inherent queerness of the topic is then sidelined unnecessarily at first. Female nudity is depicted long before the two men in love share anything more than a hug and when they finally express their feelings physically on screen, the sex scene in question is mostly static, set up to show Pablo’s arched, muscular back and very little of Francisco at all.
On the surface, it could be argued that the director himself is also reluctant to explore the queerness that Pablo tries to suppress. In reality though, this is exactly the point that Bustamante is trying to make. No matter how much these feelings are denied, they’ll always rise to the surface in defiance of oppressive institutions, both large and small.
Towards the end of Tremors (Temblores), Pablo tries to convince his former lover that the path they followed together is one that stands against the natural order of things: “It’s my duty to show you how wrong we were.” By forcing the protagonist to make an impossible choice between his desires and his children, Bustamante is making the exact same argument, except here his duty is to show audiences how wrong the Catholic church is in its opposition to homosexuality.