Bleak Street Dir. Arturo Ripstein

[Leisure Time Features ; 2016]

Styles: crime, drama
Others: Deep Crimson, The Exterminating Angel, Germany Year Zero

Bleak Street paints a picture of intersecting lives in a desolate corner of Mexico City. The narrative evokes surrealism, which makes sense given veteran director Arturo Ripstein got his start working as an assistant director for Luis Buñuel. Still, the bizarre true-crime story, ripped straight from the headlines, is the most surrealistic aspect of the movie. Shot in high-contrast black and white, the stark landscapes and fatalistic atmosphere are often more reminiscent of Italian neorealism than surrealism, though both serve as reference points.

Dora (Nora Velázquez) and Adela (Patricia Reyes Spíndola) play two aging prostitutes trying to make ends meet as their source of income begins to dry up. Adela has recently been demoted from her usual corner in favor of someone younger. Dora, meanwhile, roams the streets all night to support a spiteful teenage daughter and a cross-dressing lover who steals her best clothes. The other crucial players in this story are Little Death and Little AK (Juan Francisco Longoria and Guillermo López), a pair of twin dwarves who perform together as luchadores. In fact, they never remove the masks and engage in sexual activities as a pair. Not only are the dwarves mirror images of each other, they also double as mascots for another set of performers, Death and AK-47, the true stars of the match who are of average height.

Following the big fight, Dora and Adela agree to spend a celebratory night with the twins, while secretly conspiring to drug and rob them. However, their plan goes awry when Adela slips the luchadores a dose that would be fine for average-sized men, but proves fatal for the dwarves. At the funeral, the coffins lie side by side, topped with the masks they refused to take off in life.

Beginning with the image of the masked twins, the visual motif of mirroring reoccurs throughout the film, alluding to a better, more fulfilling existence in some alternate, looking-glass world. While the dwarf brothers are cavorting with middle-aged hookers in the middle of the night, you can’t help but wonder what their taller counterparts are doing. At one point, when Dora and Adela walk through the night, elongated shadows trail behind them, as though fate is nipping at their heels.

The fluid camerawork emphasizes the relationships between the characters. In one sequence, the camera, which has been following Little Death and Little AK, suddenly veers down a side street to a room where Adela has just finished with a customer; she rinses her mouth with a liquid from a plastic bottle and spits. Despite their disparate appearances, the prostitutes and dwarves, too, are mirrors of one another, their fates intertwined. Both have gotten the raw end of of some cosmic deal. All are doomed to wander and inevitably expire on Bleak Street, mere shadows of a life better lived.

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