Mexican movie Desierto about racist vigilante more relevant than ever

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (right) plays an illegal migrant being chased across dry sand and rocks by a racist with a hunting rifle.
Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (above) plays an illegal migrant being chased across dry sand and rocks by a racist with a hunting rifle.PHOTO: MEXICAN FILM FESTIVAL

A film about a racist vigilante killing illegal Mexican migrants in the desert was 10 years in the making, but takes on more relevance than ever today

In the thriller Desierto ("Desert" in English), a shooter picks off migrants making their way from Mexico to the United States.

The killer, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan from The Walking Dead (2010 to present), is a racist vigilante who has granted himself a licence to kill.

He pursues Moises, played by Mexican actor and film-maker Gael Garcia Bernal, in a cat-and-mouse game across kilometres of dry sand and rocks.

When Mexican director, producer and co-writer Jonas Cuaron began production on the movie, American President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric was still far in the future.

"I started writing this movie 10 years ago. I took so long to complete it that Gael made fun of me.

"He kept saying, 'By the time this comes out, the subject matter won't be relevant any more,'" he tells The Straits Times on a Skype call.

But just before the film's world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, Cuaron's wife, producer and actress Eireann Harper, showed him a piece of news.

"It was a video of Donald Trump announcing his candidacy. With that, I realised that the movie was not only still relevant, but it was also more relevant than ever."

The film opened late last year in the US and was picked as Mexico's entry to this year's Oscars race in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It was not nominated.

Desierto (NC16, 88 minutes) screens tonight as the opening picture of the Mexican Film Festival 2017 and will be screened again on Saturday.

Cuaron, 35, co-wrote the Oscar- winning science-fiction thriller Gravity (2013) with his father, Alfonso, who also directed the movie which starred Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director.

Like Gravity, Desierto throws underdogs into a situation in which they are forced to use their wits to beat a relentless enemy, or die.

In Gravity, it is the cold and vacuum of space, while in Desierto, it is a racist with a hunting rifle.

"I'm very interested in the struggle between humans and the environment. It brings the story to a very primal level, where we are all very similar and make the same decisions," Jonas Cuaron says.

Desierto's simple set-up and its intimate one-on-one struggle speaks to the director's love of 1970s action movies.

One of his favourites is Duel (1971), a film about a driver in a car pursued across the highways by a faceless man in a truck. It was feted director Steven Spielberg's feature debut.

Cuaron says: "What I admire about those 1970s movies is how they made political cinema, but disguised it under genres like action or horror."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'Game of survival in the desert'. Print Edition | Subscribe