An early candidate for the most joyous scene in a 2020 movie can be found midway through José, a prizewinning Guatemalan Bildungsroman. The title character (Enrique Salanic), who works a menial restaurant job in a noisy and overcrowded city, has managed to obtain the use of a motorcycle for a day.
He picks up his boyfriend, Luis (Manolo Herrera) for a two-wheeled trip to the countryside. José drives, and Luis embraces him from behind, playing with his cheeks while he steers. Leaving prying eyes behind, both are all smiles and unfettered, forbidden exuberance.
The film’s patient director, Li Cheng, a confident and distinctive voice in just his second feature, lets the moment play on longer than most, and we realize we’re seeing the modern equivalent of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn on that Vespa in Rome.
But José is no Hollywood fantasy; shot mostly on bustling streets and cramped urban dwellings with peeling walls, its roots are closer to postwar neorealism. Unspooling his film as a virtually plotless, sexually graphic, ennui-laced character study of a young gay man’s coming of age in a devoutly religious country, Li exposes the region’s stifling lack of opportunity and free expression, and the soft bigotry that undergirds it.
José is a different sort of film than Jayro Bustamante’s Tremors, this year’s other gay Guatemalan drama. Centering a middle-aged man ostracized from his church and family after he comes out, Tremors was a film of righteous anger and institutional intolerance. The church is not as omnipresent in José; he feels pressure mostly from his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota), with whom he lives and mostly supports financially.
But we get the impression that José’s trysts with Luis, lovingly intimate despite occurring in pay-by-the-hour motels, are not going to permanently sever his familial relationships. After all, it is not the young men’s devout mothers who threaten to drive them apart; it is the decision of Luis, a construction worker with a brighter economic future than José, to relocate to a more prosperous area of the country.
The move leaves José adrift but with a stoic sense of acceptance. Nothing really lasts in his orbit: His mom loses her short-term job as a street food vendor. A female co-worker at José’s restaurant is abandoned, pregnant and heartbroken, by the baby’s father. And Luis has split for greener pastures. If there’s an overarching theme in José, it’s the transience of experience in an impoverished nation where every day is catch-as-catch-can.
Real-life events occasionally bleed into Li’s story, as when José happens upon a teacher protest in the city center. When an earthquake strikes his home and rustles him from sleep, we wonder if such an event was scripted. Li’s direction strikes an acute balance between documentary naturalism and formal beauty.
Cinematographer Paolo Giron discovers countless visual diamonds in the rough of Guatemala, his painterly mise-en-scène especially effective during the young couple’s post-coital exchanges.
As a queer film, a foreign-language film and a docufiction — actor Salanic is a gay man himself, and brought his own experiences to the character — José checks off more art-house boxes than most movies in the indie circuit. If it were only black and white, it would be a grand slam. But it’s the film’s universal pathos — the quiet longing over a crushing loss, and the necessity to soldier on — that lingers, over and beyond its uncertain dénouement.
JOSÉ. Director: Li Cheng; Cast: Enrique Salanic, Manolo Herrera, Ana Cecelia Mota. In Spanish with English subtitles. Distributor: Outsider Pictures. Opens: Friday, Feb. 14 at Lake Worth Playhouse, Living Room Theaters at FAU in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, and the Tower Theater in Miami. Director Li Cheng will appear for a Q&A session at a special premiere Thursday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Tower Theater; Feb. 14 at the Gateway (time TBA) and Feb. 15 at Lake Worth Playhouse and Living Room Theaters (times TBA).