Filmmaker Hari Sama creates a touching, painfully recognizable portrait of gay coming-of-age in the punk and new wave scenes of 1980s Mexico City with This is Not Berlin
by Steve Murray
September 11, 2019
Set in 1986 – amid the demimonde of asymmetrically-haired, punk-rock musicians and performance artists, bouncing around each other in sexual fluidity – This Is Not Berlin took me back to a time I’m happy not to return to. That’s no slight against the film. Yes, if I could go back in a time machine I would be much younger, much thinner – but the confusions and the fear of those times, which the movie nicely captures, isn’t something I’d like to relive. I recommend it, though, for those of us who survived that era (both literally and spiritually), or others who are curious about the times.
Set and made in Mexico but feeling universal, Berlin (opening Sept. 13 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema) centers on 17-year-old Carlos (Xabiana Ponce de León), a longhaired high schooler who’s a gifted engineer and all-around fixit man. When he repairs an electronic keyboard for his best friend Gera’s (Joés Antonio Toledano) sister Rita (Ximena Romo), the boys demand in-kind payment: Though underage, they want to get passed in for a night at Aztec, the club where Rita and her band perform.
It’s a progressive, grimy, druggy place; you can almost smell it through the screen. And though the crowd is mixed, Gera sees some guys making out at the bar. Panicked, he asks, “Is this a gay bar?” The response: “This is an everything bar.”
Gera’s an OK-looking kid. But Carlos has an almost androgynous beauty and Pre-Raphaelite tresses. It’s no surprise that he captures the attention of club regular Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), a louche gay employee of Aztec, with pretensions of being an artist. What’s more surprising is that Carlos hasn’t already been laid any number of times by any of his female classmates (including his secret, off-limits crush, Rita).
We get a good glimpse of Carlos’s home life: no father, and a depressed mother who can’t get out of bed some days. So it makes sense when he creates an alternate family, drifting into the possibly predatory circle of Aztec’s hardcore hangers-on. Like Nico, many of them are would-be artists, though Gabriel, a (gay) representative of a local gallery, strolling through one of their bacchanals, chastises them: “Our friends are dying. All you want to do is party every night.” AIDS hasn’t ruptured the celebration yet (Carlos even has to ask what Gabriel is even talking about), but it’s lurking on the fringes.
This Is Not Berlin follows Carlos through a 1980s, coming-of-age, stations-of-the-cross as he experiences some firsts: a head-blowing snort of poppers, too much booze, bad haircut choices, naked performance-art marches in the daytime streets, and eventually sex. The adventures for Carlos and Gera – including a brief estrangement between the boys – verge enough on danger that you worry about their well-being. Or, if you’re of a certain age, make you think about the bullets you yourself might have dodged back then.
Writer-director Hari Sama’s film is autobiographical, so you have the assurance that he made it out alive; his view of that period is seductive yet cautionary, and his observations are spot-on. (Sama also turns up onscreen as Carlos’s cool, loving uncle.) The movie concludes with a surprise that you can probably see coming. I did, but still, it’s played out in a sweet way that gives the movie a very satisfying ending.
Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century.
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