When crusty old activists talk about their klieg-lit close-ups—defending the barricades in Paris of ’68, fighting off police during the occupation of Zuccotti Park in 2011—they talk about adrenaline.
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In the old braggarts’ telling, they were nothing if not animated. They debated, fought, and fucked, a great mass of seething life pitting their bodies against the brutal coolness of business as usual and devoting themselves to the messy heat of democracy as it should be conducted.
But Güeros, an understated but lush-looking film in black and white by Alonso Ruiz Palacio, depicts a student revolt in Mexico City as a moment of profound and unexpectedly beautiful ennui. Despite the characters’ best efforts to achieve a goal (lead a student revolt, search for an obscure musician), they come most alive in moments of pause: joking while stuck in traffic, talking to a little neighbor girl on a cup-and-string telephone, catching their breath in a city garden after running from a potential mugger.
It begins when rowdy little Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is sent away to stay with his older brother Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), a university student in the big city—but the students are on day 163 of a strike, and nobody has much to do besides talk, march, and not work on their thesis papers.
The two brothers, plus Sombra’s pal Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), go on a circuitous road trip through Mexico City. The lost children pass through a series of situations and are at home in none of them: tough and poor quarters of town, the roiling and self-important students at the campus, a ritzy party full of pretentious movie people, and so on. (“Güero” means foreigner—the characters meet this epithet nearly everywhere they go.)
Güeros, like Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, does not build toward a climax, but is an episodic tour through a series of Mexican scenes that manage to be dreamy and gritty at the same time. There is adrenaline and heat, fighting and fucking, but in this movie, that’s not where life really is—it’s in a glance, a murmur, and trying to catch your breath.