I made the mistake of worrying about plot while watching Natalia López’s feature directorial debut Robe of Gems. The synopsis dares you to worry with its talk of three women colliding courtesy of a missing person in Mexican cartel territory, asking us to wonder how things will resolve. Except we already know. The bodies found in landfills and marshes throughout the film prove it. If those who are kidnapped aren’t already found dead, you can assume they will be soon. That doesn’t mean María (Antonia Olivares) won’t continue to hope for her sister’s return, though. Nor does it stop her recently-returned-to-the-countryside boss Isabel (Nailea Norvind) from joining the cause. Add Roberta’s police chief (Aida Roa) to the mix and know the woman’s memory isn’t forgotten.
The problem with having expectations for a resolution, however, stems from the fact that María’s sister is nothing more than a MacGuffin. We never meet her, receive details about her disappearance, or really understand what it is these women are doing to keep her case alive. She’s but a ghost that gives them an excuse to overlap each other’s orbits and show us just how insidiously expansive crime boss Gallo’s (José Medina) reach is. He conversely proves more of a central focal point because he is both tangible and powerful. Everyone knows that he is responsible for every bad thing that happens and yet nobody can do anything about it. María is so desperate for money that she even works for him on the side despite that truth.
So too does Roberta’s son Adán (Juan Daniel García Treviño), much to her chagrin. What can she do to stop him, though? He knows her precinct is in Gallo’s pocket like everybody else so trying to make it an “us versus them” dynamic carries zero water. Why not skip the bullshit justifications and simply join his cause? The pay is obviously better and closer proximity might even provide protection. The question is thus less about how Adán’s actions might impact his mother as she searches for missing people and more about how Roberta’s integrity and pride in being the white hat who still gives a damn might hurt him. This life is all about leverage and Gallo owns the majority. Thinking any differently will only get you killed.
And therein lies the intrigue behind Isabel’s trajectory. Here is a woman who comes from money (her mother, Mónica Poggio’s Eugenia, is insulated in her new mansion) that has only returned to the mansion where she grew up because she’s in the midst of a divorce and needed an escape. The idea is that she’s safe there despite its dilapidated appearance due to misuse because workers are on-site to fix it up. She’s probably correct in that thinking too—her children (Sherlyn Zavala’s Valeria and Balám Toledo’s Benjamín) have yet to fear anything. Whether hubris, guilt, or impotence as far as struggling to find purpose goes, she decides to poke the bear anyway. While María resigns herself to looking for her sister’s body, Isabel infiltrates Gallo’s operation instead.
López—who began her career as an editor on Post Tenebras Lux and Jauja—fluidly shifts us back and forth between these three women (and, to a lesser extent, Adán) in a way that makes our default desire of deciphering plot impossible. There’s a poetic sense of connection rather than a narrative one, each transition to a different character ignited by the emotional impact of the previous cliffhanger. This is truest where it comes to Isabel since she’s always at the greatest risk. María is losing her soul working for Gallo and desperately attempting to survive Roberta’s desire for her to flip on him while her policewoman weighs justice against maternal love, but Isabel is in the lion’s den with no control over her own fate.
Where does that leave us? In a state of constant pause beyond the certainty that there will be no happy endings. Not for the cowards as manifested by the men too quick to turn a blind eye (or, in Roberta’s husband’s case, raise the volume of the television) so as not to have to take a stand themselves. Not for the heroes either. María is working for the man who presumedly killed her sister, fearing she’ll be next. Roberta is daring to do her job despite knowing her son’s life could be used to teach her lesson. And Isabel is leaving her children behind to do what? Hope to catch a glimpse of María’s sister? Hope to leave Gallo’s men’s clutches with her life? I’m honestly not sure.
The only way I can wrap my head around Isabel’s choices is believing they’re her way to wrestle back agency. She’s choosing to do something in opposition to her mother’s wealth, her husband’s avoidance, and the cartel’s thievery. By walking through the jaws of Hell, she’s refusing to let herself be dragged (until López drives home the reality that nothing you do on the fringes of cartel life can truly protect you from being dragged down further regardless). Even if you are lucky enough to escape, you’ll still need to contend with the physical and psychological scars of the experience. Even if you find the strength to stand tall against tyranny, a price too great to bear must still be paid. Their actions inspire, but the futility incapacitates.
López writes in her director’s statement that her desire “is to refer to a spiritual wound and its psychological dimension—the one that is not visible.” It’s a great line that’s crucial to accepting the severity of the drama and its abject direness. Robe of Gems isn’t an easy film. Its harrowing content is devoid of optimism and its pacing ensures we wallow in the resulting suffering even if very little of it is actually shown on-screen. One could argue that keeping the abuse in the vacuum of jump cuts is hardly a service because it forces us to lose our own control over the proceedings. We must fear the worst while the silent tears of Olivares, Norvind, and Roa prove we’re correct in doing so.
Robe of Gems premiered at the 2022 Berlinale.