Mexican day laborers are ‘Los Bastardos’ in fictional work

At first glance, “Los Bastardos” seems a surprising film for a Mexican director to make.

The second movie from Amat Escalante, 30, is a disturbing fictional tale about 24 hours in the lives of two undocumented Mexican day laborers in Los Angeles.

The documentary style of Escalante’s storytelling, which uses two non-actors in the main roles, lulls the viewer into a false sense of complacency that comes to a traumatic and sudden end. The long, lingering shots, taken by a stationary camera, are reminiscent of films such as “Luz Silenciosa / Silent Light” by hot Mexican film talent Carlos Reygadas, who was an associate producer on "Los Bastardos" and also provided Escalante with what he calls “moral support.”

Given the debate raging in the United States over the rights of undocumented migrants, “Los Bastardos” could be accused of playing into the hands of the anti-immigration lobby.

After a day’s hard (illegal) labor, the lead characters Jesús and Fausto break into the house of a white, middle-class woman. OK, she’s too high on crack to really care that much. But why would Escalante _ the son of an American woman and a Mexican man who illegally crossed the border into the U.S. before Escalante was born _ want to portray his undocumented paisanos as violent delinquents?

Escalante said his intention was to provoke thought, not to strengthen stereotypes. The film will be seen on both sides of the U.S. border with Mexico, and promises to challenge the two audiences.

Although anti-immigration activists may feel vindicated by the criminal nature of Jesús and Fausto, many people in the U.S. could be concerned by the way Americans in the film treat day laborers in California. Likewise, Mexican viewers might empathize with the persecution of their countrymen abroad, but bristle at the portrayal of the undocumented Mexicans as ultimately violent thugs.

“What I wanted … is that both sides could be offended, not just one,” said Escalante, who knew since he started making movies in his early 20s that he was going to one day focus on immigration.

“I didn’t want to make a movie [in which] the Mexicans had to be completely good,” he said in near perfect English during an interview in Mexico City. Escalante lived in the U.S from the age of 11 to 18. He now resides in Guanajuato, Mexico.

That none of the characters is completely good or bad is what makes the film much more cynical and complex than it first seems. The bleak social background against which the events of the film roll out paints a depressing picture of the daily lives of at least two Americans, too. The day laborers’ victim Karen (played by Nina Zavarin, a professional actress) can barely have a conversation with her teenage son, and hits the crack pipe in the evening to block out her everyday existence.

Throughout the film the viewer has a mounting sense of dread as they observe the abuse Jesús and Fausto endure from U.S. citizens. But whether their crime is a vengeful act, or one for which they’re being paid by a third party (as Karen suspects, at least from her drug-addled perspective) isn’t really the point. Perhaps the point is that everyone in the movie is a victim in some way.

“The movie is about something that stops working, and collapses, for me. I have the theory that when things are not just, or not equal, or not the way they should be naturally, they will explode and some bad things are going to happen. In the movie this is what I wanted to show,” said Escalante.

He does so very graphically, with a feature film that deserves the recognition it has received from a number of festivals including the Morelia International Film Festival (best feature film) and Cannes (Un certain regard).

Whether you love it or hate it, “Los Bastardos” promises to leave an impression that’s hard to shake.

“Los Bastardos” opened in Mexico cinemas last Friday, and is available on DVD in the United States.

— Deborah Bonello in Mexico City for the Los Angeles Times

Video by Deborah Bonello. All non-interview material courtesy of Mantarraya Productions. With thanks for the Red Tree House for hosting the filming of the interview.