A Look at Male Sexuality
“Jose” is a Guatemalan drama that looks at male sexuality in a culture where machismo rules. Chinese-born American filmmaker Li Cheng cleverly lets the plot unfold in such a subtle way that the movie has a documentary feel to it. This year it won the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival,
José (Enrique Salanic) is a 19-year-old living with his single mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) and his siblings in Guatemala City. The family is struggling as the gap between rich and poor widens. José is against the deep-seated religious culture of Guatemala and has had to hide the fact that he’s gay. He limits physical encounters to strangers he meets on a phone app, and no one knows his secret. But then he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), a construction worker from the countryside who has taken a job in the city. As they fall in love, Luis, who is open about being gay, asks José to run away with him. But José feels like he can’t abandon his mother.
Having been raised in a hyper-religious world, José believes that he is not entitled to romantic happiness. We follow him as he begins to discover that maybe he has a choice in the matter. When Luis disappears, José has to make a choice: does he return to his previous life, or does he risk it all to try to find Luis? Director Cheng and cinematographer Paolo Giron skillfully put the characters within the context of a bustling city with its powerful traditions. Images cleverly contrast the pristine countryside with the grubby urban sprawl. Most scenes are dialogue-free; the story is tracked through glances and touches that convey thoughts, feelings and attitudes. Because the film feels more like a slice-of-life than a constructed narrative, we let it become part of us as we watch.
The actors deliver remarkably relaxed, open-handed performances, so much so that the intimate moments make us feel like voyeurs. The connection between José and Luis is visually strong, so much so that they don’t need to say much. So when Luis leaves, the audience feels his absence as strongly as José does. He hides his pain from his mother whose entire life is informed by her faith, including her desire that her children follow the same path.
Subplots add additional texture to the story as they deal with criminality, natural disasters and economic injustice. As a poor gay man, José doesn’t seem to have a chance.
Director Li Cheng had extensive interviews with gay and marginalized youths across Latin America as the foundation for this film that is a reflective drama set in Guatemala and looks at love, loss and queer desire the shadows of a culture defined by crime, violence, macho attitudes, strict religious beliefs and binding family ties. To compensate for its underfed narrative, we see a tender observational quality backed by confident visuals. Its treatment of gay sex and nudity, while somewhat homoerotic, they depict emotional candor.
Jose’s mother sells sandwiches without a license at street markets around town; he works a busy intersection directing passing motorists to a cheap-eats outlet. While Jose watches his straight co-workers express affection, his search for connection is channeled through a hookup app on his phone. He checks it constantly, whether during his afternoons on the street or when he’s alone in bed at night. His encounters take place in a flophouse and he lies to his mother about his reasons for coming home late and bringing in less cash.
When he meets Luis, a spark gently ignites that’s emotional as well as physical. In one delicate scene, they examine each other’s scars; Luis indicates one resulting from a beating when his brothers caught him with another guy from the village. He is working at a site converting a fire-damaged former luxury hotel into condos (a metaphor) and he intends to leave the city when Once Jose borrows a friend’s motorbike and he and Luis ride to a remote countryside spot. They steal kisses and caresses along the way, making out in a bamboo field once they get there. Talk of love follows the next time they meet, prompting Luis to ask Jose to go away with him, possibly leaving Guatemala for someplace better. But Jose hesitates since he feels that he should stay and help his mother who is not oblivious to her son’s secret life.
Cheng shows how just keeping your head above water is a constant battle in José’s world. We are immersed in the daily grind, while at the same time we see how society is largely held together by family and religion. The story is slight, but Cheng treats the subject matter with care, allowing a slow but certain feeling build between José and Luis, capturing the way that straightforward sex becomes increasingly supplemented by gestures of fondness as their relationship grows.
Although the director makes sure we’re aware of the expectations of wider Guatemalan society, he keeps the emotional focus tight on José as he grapples with the choice between ‘potential’ futures that are suddenly presented to him. Although the emotionally saturated music cues do the film no favors and it meanders a little towards the end, this is nevertheless a worthwhile look at a part of Guatemalan society infrequently captured on film.
It is the chemistry between Salanic and Herrera that makes this movie so enjoyable and so electric. We have new men men who are simply content in the joy of finding each other and having a moment of happiness away from their tough impoverished lives.