It’s the least of her problems in “La Civil,” but it’s unfortunate that Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez) can’t trust her husband Gustavo (Álvaro Guerrero), now estranged and living with a much younger girlfriend. At first, you wouldn’t think much of it when it’s clear that Cielo has moved on and with the monthly support Gustavo still provides, she is more than capable of keeping a roof over the head of herself and their teenage daughter Laura, but it’s certainly an issue when he initially doesn’t believe her when she tells him that Laura’s been kidnapped, leaving the only one in her life that she could trust being held for ransom if the abductors are even to be believed.
Making her feature narrative debut after working in documentary, there are number of small dramatic nuances like that in Teodora Mihai’s suspenseful thriller, which bears the unusual trio of the Dardenne Brothers, Cristian Mungiu and Michel Franco as co-producers and to its director’s credit actually feels like a film that any one of them would’ve been interested in making themselves, and when given how disparate their sensibilities are, this becomes distinctive in and of itself. With the no-nonsense neorealist determination one might expect from Mihai’s Romanian background, she partners with co-writer Habacuc Antonio De Rosario, a Belgian by way of the border town McAllen, Texas, for the story of a mother who will stop at nothing to find out what happened to her daughter in Northern Mexico where cartels run the show.
It’s never entirely made clear if El Puma, as he’s known, is actually connected to narcos or not, part of why it’s so deeply frustrating for Cielo to hand over $150,000 she doesn’t have unaware of how much of a threat he is, but such is life in the region where everyone is touched by them to one degree or another. Cielo is already upset to see her streets patrolled by paramilitary brought in to sweep for narcos, but having next to no help from Gustavo and and distrustful of local law enforcement, she strikes a deal with Lt. Lamarque, who could use her knowledge of the area in getting to know his new beat while he could provide the muscle she needs to find out more about Laura’s whereabouts than she could on her own.
Mihai straddles a fine line of pulpy revenge drama and a more naturalistic study of systemic corruption as Cielo has to become her own private investigator, but impressively for as much as the director leans into both ends of that spectrum, “La Civil” never loses its balance, clearly enriched with authentic detail yet knowing when to deliver the goods. A visit to the morgue where Cielo pushes past some initial resistance to see if any of the bodies there belong to her daughter or eventually joining the task force on their raids may seem to stretch the limits of credulity, but as she’s drawn in, Cielo hardens and becomes as calculating and cynical as those who took her daughter, finding ways to adapt to the rules of a game she abhors. A convincingly stoic Ramírez shines, but Mihai and De Rosario give the room to all her actors to show how everyone is deeply somehow touched by the ongoing violence, even the slippery El Puma, whose casual treatment of his crimes is at once menacing but also an indictment of how even the most villainous can be seen equally as part of a lost generation, subsumed by a culture of fear where young people either go missing or become foot soldiers, with no one feeling as if they have the power to disrupt a vicious cycle. While Mihai can only convey its revolutions, it feels like “La Civil” is a breakthrough.
“La Civil” will screen at Cannes on July 10th at the Debussy Theatre at 8:30 am and Cineum Aura at 12:30 pm.