This Is Not Berlin – Film Review

This Is Not Berlin, the emotive, evocative film that turned heads at Sundance will pose an intriguing question to the scope of queer cinema. Hara Sama’s semi-autobiographical account of coming of age in 1980s Mexico is visually sumptuous and literally electro-charged. Carlos and Gera are two young men discovering their place in a politically volatile, culturally bombastic and family oriented world, which they seek to escape in the nightclub culture that opens their minds and bodies to more than either expected.

Carlos is pitched as the film’s esoteric protagonist, the sensitive outsider, played consumingly by Xabiani Ponce de León. Gera, strikingly portrayed by José Antonio Toledano, struggles to separate from the masculine peer pressures and dutiful childhood demeanour. When Gera’s sister Rita, played by Ximena Romo who is a breath of fresh air doing a great deal of the political heavy-lifting, is able to get them into an exclusive club of punks, queers, junkies and artists, an erotic world opens before them through gates kept by Nico, a sadly underused Mauro Sánchez Navarro. Sama does not afford the viewer much time to get to know the characters too deeply – this film is more a visual journey than a story. Certainly characters like Carlos’ uncle Estaban, played by the director himself, tantalised the audience to wander into their lives and learn more. The same can be said of all the female characters in the piece.

This Is Not Berlin is produced with temper, pace, and multisensory appeal. The music by Rita’s band truly elevates the film, as do the few artistic montages splashed in to tear into Carlos’ former way of life. Cinematically, the production design of houses, streets and seedy art orgies is all-at-once gruesome, arousing, and alarming. The cultural dissonance of the piece is definitely in the dialogue, but this serves to remind us of a different place, time and historic entrenchment of divides being bashed against by adaptations of rebellion that never had to push back against nearly as much as these communities did. This Is Not Berlin is a movie that will mean more to you the more time and distance you get from watching it. It simmers and sticks to something in your mind about how these young men juxtaposed to the sociopolitical imperatives far more nuanced in Sama’s vision.

While an acquired taste, This Is Not Berlin is worth continuing after the first few choking inhalations, the first acrid taste, the unfamiliar gut-clenching of unfamiliar avenues to maturity. It is a film that will continue to surprise and satisfy, sparking discussions and yearning for freedom from sedation.

This Is Not Berlin is part of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
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