Former Golden Lion winner Lorenzo Vigas (From Afar) returns to the Venice Film Festival with his second feature, La Caja, aka The Box. Set in northern Mexico, it’s a grueling insight into the plight of casual workers as well as a mystery about a son and his possible father.
Teenager Hatzín (Hatzín Navarrete) arrives in an industrial town to collect the remains of his estranged father, whom he’s told has died in a mining accident. But when he sees a man in the street who resembles his father, he’s convinced there’s been a mistake.
Pursuing Mario (Hernán Mendoza) relentlessly, he refuses to believe that he’s not his father. Eventually, Mario allows Hatzín to run errands for him, and gives him shelter. But Mario’s line of work is not for the faint hearted: he hires laborers for factories, where the conditions are harsh. Innocent Hatzín soon has his eyes opened to the many deceptions involved in recruiting workers who have few options, and families to feed.
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Part thriller, part gritty exposé, La Caja doesn’t always achieve a comfortable balance between the two — but then again, nothing about this film is meant to be comfortable.
The screenplay, written by Vigas and Paula Markovitch, shows a world where the option of morality is considered a luxury. For Mario, it’s about survival, and protecting his family. On the one hand he’s a loving partner with a baby on the way; on the other, he may or may not have abandoned another family. And he is certainly ruthless when it comes to dealing with other people’s families. We watch in horror, along with Hatzín, as the true extent of his brutality is revealed; all the more chilling for its casual air. The question becomes less about whether Mario is Hatzín’s father, and whether he would really want him to be.
Performances are strong: newcomer Navarrete elicits sympathy with an understated but quietly powerful performance, his subtle expressions speaking volumes in scenes where he can only watch, helplessly, as events unfold. Mendoza is a suitably big presence: at once the father figure that Hatzín has been missing, and the potential villain of the piece.
There’s one decision that Hatzín makes that is shocking and hard to understand: to detail it would be a spoiler, but it’s a potential audience divider. La Caja has its tonal and narrative challenges. But it’s an important and sadly credible insight into the corruption and crime in a place where the underprivileged can disappear at a moment’s notice, without even a box for families to collect.