“I love you too, see you later,” Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta) tells her mother Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez), as the teenager heads off on a date with her boyfriend Lisandro (Manuel Villegas). Husband Gustavo (Álvaro Guerrero) has long since left Cielo for the much younger Rosy (Vanesa Burciago), and now mother and daughter live together in contented poverty. Although this is the opening sequence from La Civil, it is also the last time Laura will be seen on screen, as the film’s remaining two or so hours will be defined entirely by her absence, and by the gaping emptiness that this leaves in Cielo’s life. For Laura is abducted by a cartel, and even after Cielo and Gustavo pay the ransom, the girl is not handed back over, causing the mother to go on an obsessive search for her missing daughter – like the mythical mother Demeter frantically looking for Persephone, only in the criminal demimonde of contemporary Mexico rather than in Hades’ more literal Underworld.
Romanian director Teodora Mihai (Waiting for August, 2013), who co-wrote with Habacuc Antonio De Rosario, brings her documentarian’s eye to Cielo’s haunted quest. For, shot by Marius Panduru with largely handheld camerawork that sticks close to Cielo and heightens the (constructed) naturalism of her experiences, the mother’s private investigation offers an anatomisation of a society corrupted from top to bottom by the criminal gangs. Receiving no help from either the police or (initially) the army, Cielo starts tracking the gangs’ movements herself at a funeral home where they collect the bodies of their fallen and at the small shops that they are shaking down – and the local information that she gathers from these stakeouts proves so impressive that soon a secretive cadre of the military, led by Lamarque (Jorge A. Jimenez), is inviting her to collaborate on their extrajudicial missions deep into gangland.
As all this unfolds, we see Cielo transforming from an aproned mother too timid to approach her husband for missing alimony cheques, to a steely, determined, independent pursuer of justice willing to confront anyone and anything. That said, this is not Tony Scott‘s Man On Fire (2004). While certainly displaying the kind of fearlessness that only desperation can bring, Cielo is no élite agent with a set of special skills (even if she does become uncomfortably embedded in some special military operations), but rather, as the film’s title states, a ‘civilian’ – and importantly, unlike Denzel Washington’s character in Man On Fire or Jack Lemmon’s and Sissy Spacek’s in Costa Gavras’ Chile-set Missing (1982), she is no outsider but a local, horrified to see at first hand the criminality of her own country.
“I have come to see if you have any humanity left,” Cielo will say near the end, confronting the young man (Juan Daniel García Treviño) whom she is convinced – with good reason – was intimately involved in her daughter’s abduction. By this stage, when Cielo has witnessed from up close the brutality of both sides in this war and even herself participated, her words apply equally to her own person, dehumanised by the all-consuming, soul-destroying reality of cartel predations on Mexican society. La Civil is an unremittingly bleak portrait of a nation ruled by anomie and injustice – but after all its hard, vicious realism, it turns at its very end back to myth, and to an ambiguous glimpse of hope, even a guarded happiness, resurrected.
strap: Woman on Fire: in Teodora Mihai’s feature, the mother of an abducted teenager learns to (De)mete(r) out justice against the cartels on Mexico’s mean streets
© Anton Bitel