PSIFF's Cine Latino showcase included the North American premiere of Daniel Gruener's Mexican black comedy Morir$e En Domingo / Never On A Sunday (2006), a film that contains enough corpse violation humor to send Bay Area critic Mick LaSalle screaming from the theater but whose surreal treatment of death most Mexicans will likely understand and culturally appreciate. The film was likewise one of the 13 films included in PSIFF's New Voices/New Visions jury competition (though it lost that honor to Verónica Chen's Agua). Of additional note is that the film was programmed for PSIFF by San Francisco's Anita Monga.
Julio Salas, the favorite uncle of Carlos (Humberto Busto), passes away after a long illness and everything starts to go irreverently wrong from there. First—though Carlos can close Julio's eyes—he can't get his uncle's mouth to remain closed and ends up having to tape it shut. Secondly, his uncle has died on a Sunday and—as Gruener's second feature film makes painfully clear—a Mexican should never die on a Sunday. Since coroners refuse to work on Sundays, there is no one to sign the death certificate required by a reputable funeral home to come and pick up the corpse. Further, due to financial difficulties, the family is forced to browse the Yellow Pages to find a modest funeral home to make the arrangements. Such undertakers are nicknamed zopilotes in Mexico; i.e. vultures. By phone they finally locate Joaquin (Silverio Palacios) whose wife has summoned him from the local bar. In his drunken state, Joaquin helps remove the body of Uncle Julio. Nephew Carlos is ordered by his father to help Joaquin transport the body to the funeral home, to oversee the cremation, and to return with a receipt. Distraught and distracted, Carlos fails to follow his father's directions and leaves his uncle's unsupervised corpse at the funeral home. Joaquin seizes the opportunity to sell the cadaver to the local university for instructional autopsies. When Carlos inadvertently learns of this transaction, he returns to Joaquin demanding not only a receipt but the retrieval of his uncle's body for proper cremation. What ensues is a grotesquely surreal and comic chain of events—not the least of which is that Carlos falls in love with Ana (Maya Zapata), the zopilote's daughter. As the PSIFF program capsule synopsizes, immersed in a macabre world of depravity, corruption and death—encapsulated within contemporary Mexico City—Carlos discovers that Sunday—not Friday the 13th—is the unluckiest day by far.
After the screening, I approached Daniel Gruener to ask a few questions. As preposterous as the pretext of this black comedy seemed, Gruener had indicated in his introduction that it was based on actual events that had happened to the film's screenwriter, Antonio Armonía. I wanted to delineate what was fact and what was fiction. Much to my horrified amazement, Gruener confirmed all the events leading up to the second half of the film were true. Armonía's uncle had died on a Sunday in September 2004. The family had hired a zopilote to cremate the body only to discover later that it had been sold to a university morgue in Morelos. At the time Armonía and Gruener had been working on a script for an American production but when Armonía relayed the gruesome news, Gruener felt this was the anecdote around which they should be working. They set the American script aside and started developing the script for Never On A Sunday. Gruener and Armonía wanted the film's humor and irony to function as a weapon against the pain caused by the loss of a loved one and also the anger they both felt against the reality of their country. They wanted Never On A Sunday to be a film about people surviving painful situations.
Recalling how badly Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle had reacted to the corpse-violation humor in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, I queried whether U.S. movie audiences would be willing to accept Never On A Sunday? Though Never On A Sunday approximates the gallows humor of HBO's hit series Six Feet Under, it goes much further in its morbid dalliance with mortality; a flirtation with which most Mexicanos are familiar but not so much here in the States. I asked how the film had been received in Mexico?
Never On A Sunday has been screened only once in Mexico at the Morelia Film Festival to a capacity audience in a large theater. Gruener felt the Mexican audience understood what they were watching, that they knew such corrupt transactions were not only possible but frequently happen in Mexico. They "got" the film's underlying message. There are certain dialogues and details in the film placed especially for Mexican audiences and that might be impossible to understand if you are not Mexican. Interestingly enough, when Never On A Sunday was shown at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, the Spanish-European audience didn't react to specific Mexican details but generally reacted quite openly to the film's dark humor and caustic situations. They were stunned to discover the film was based on real and frequently possible corruption. Such corpse theft would be extremely difficult in Spain, if not downright impossible in the United States. That being said, however, Gruener related that—while on the plane flying into Palm Springs—he was reading a newspaper article about an open casket memorial service for James Brown, who died last Christmas and is still somehow lying around. Americans, he smiled, might not be that far off from Mexicans after all.
Exploring what is quintessentially "Mexican" about Never On A Sunday, Gruener explained that the film is purposely full of contradictory emotions. The living survive thanks to the dead. The doubts that each of us has about our existence is reflected in the different characters of the film. As Gruener has written, he wanted the film to "function as a mirror revealing how we are as Mexicans in these times, our families, our fears, our guilts, our lies, our abuses, our waste products. About a society in transition debating its survival or its death. In this story—in contrast to so many other films—what is of least importance is how a person dies. Here, what we are dealing with is how where some die, others play with fire."
Quoting Woody Allen—"It's not that I'm afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens"—Gruener has explained that "talking about death has always been difficult in a modern world. Everything functions as if death did not exist. We prefer to ignore it; to create joy and good health within reach of all. Dying is one of the few things that none of us who are alive have any experience firsthand. This great unknown that accompanies from the day we arrive in this world provokes a variety of sentiments but, above all, fear. This film is about Mexicans and this is a country that smiles at death, gives it a face. We celebrate it. Make caricatures of it. Mexicans know they won't avoid it by ignoring it. Nevertheless this immortal love does not veil the perplexity and fear about dying that is equally as deep seated as it is in other nations, but the Mexican laughs at death as a way of celebrating the fact that he or she is alive and confronting the unavoidable. As Octavio Paz was to say, 'Death fascinates us Mexicans. It attracts us. Wreaks vengeance on life, stripping it of all its vanity and pretensions. Converting it into what it is: a pile of bare bones and a horrific grimace.'
"In his anthology of black humor, André Breton points out, 'Mexico, with its splendid funeral toys, affirms itself as the chosen land of black humor.' However, few films today utilize this humor based upon our unique appreciation of death that endows it with a life of its own and increasingly fewer Mexican works of art and artists, including paintings, the pioneers of playing with the skeleton, are interested in reflecting our 'favorite toy' and our 'most enduring love.' That's what life is and why it is so difficult. Furthermore, we must know how to die on the right day. In the final analysis that is what is the real tragedy of our times. Not dying. That we all know that that day will come even though we may not want to be there when it does."
I asked Gruener about the actors in Never On A Sunday and he proudly asserted they are some of the strongest actors currently working in Mexico. He's sure I have seen some of them in other films but maybe didn't recognize them because of the work he did transforming them into their characters. Humberto Busto, who plays Carlos in the film, made his film debut as Jorge in Amores Perros. Silverio Palacios, who plays the zopilote Joaquin, was the guy at the beach in Y Tu Mama Tambien. Maya Zapata (Ana) just finished filming Bordertown with Jennifer Lopez and has done quite a few films, including her first character role at the age of 6 in Luis Puenzo's Old Gringo. Gruener prepared his characters—especially these three—for eight months, hammering out the script. He believes they have done a very good job.
Never On A Sunday is Gruener's second full-length feature, so I asked about his first and what we can expect from him in the future? His first film Sobrenatural / All Of Them Witches (1996) is a psychological horror piece, Polanski-style, that proved to be popular with the American studios and secured him two opportunities to make film in the United States. His third project is a Mexican version of Frankenstein.
Cross-published at Twitch.