A little bit more (Un poco más) is what this reviewer wanted to see of Rigoberto Perezcano’s second feature film, the melancholic thriller Carmin Tropical. The Mexican director, native to Zaachila, Oaxaca, leaves the audience craving exactly that, un poco más, a song which also serves as the soundtrack to the film.
Set in Juchitán, a town in Oaxaca next to the Pacific Coast, Carmín Tropical follows Mabel (José Pecina) on a journey of self-discovery, instigated by the murder of one of her friends, Daniela. Having previously left her hometown to follow a man to Veracruz on the Mexican East Coast, travelling from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic, Mabel returns to Juchitán to investigate her friend’s death.
Both Mabel and Daniela were Muxes. Muxe is a word from the Zapotecan language that means “mujer” – “woman”. However, Muxe here does not refer to women, but instead to a third gender, neither female nor male, a man dressed like a woman who adopts the “traditional role” of women in Mexican society. It is important to clarify that Muxes are well accepted by the Mexican machista society in this picturesque part of Mexico, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, unlike in the rest of the country. Muxes look after the elderly and children; they cook and perform household chores and families encourage the continuity of this Pre-Hispanic tradition. This is so accepted than when Mabel, in her search, finds herself visiting the presumed suspect of Daniela’s murder in prison and is asked to fill in a form where she has to give her gender, there is a third box, and she proudly checks “Muxe”.
Perezcano portrays the role of Muxes in an exquisite way in his thriller. Modesto (Luis Alberti), the killer, is only revealed at the end of the film; for the most part of its duration, he seems like a very helpful taxi driver from Nayarit who is willing to help Mabel in her search for the truth of Daniela’s fate. He shows a lot of interest towards Mabel and she inevitably falls for his attentions and charm. Mabel’s friends, also Muxes, try to persuade her to accept her feelings for Modesto unaware of the danger she will face by doing so. Modesto, meaning modest in English, seems to honour his name as a lamb that turns out to be a wolf. His character is difficult to work out; would he be part of that machismo so eloquently described by Octavio Paz as “the mask that Mexican men wear in order to hide insecurities and fears”? Well Modesto also hides something more sinister than Paz’s description of machismo.
Scenes like the one in Ojo de Agua, a natural water spring and the one in La Ventosa, a beach near to Juchitán, where the body of Daniela is found, provide the viewer with a taste of Zapotecan land, a land diverse like Mexico itself and also the microcosm Oaxaca and its seven regions represent. The diversity reaches not only the land, but also its people. The characters in the film convey those differences and variety in their attitudes and behavior. Juchitán and Tehuantepec in general are perhaps comparable on its climate and geography to Rioacha in Colombia, source of inspiration to Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism. Therefore, not difficult to imagine why the characters seem alien in other parts of Mexico where acceptance to the other gender still has much room for improvement, as it is real and not a product of anyone’s imagination. However, the opportunity to show Juchitán is missed by the director.
Overall, Carmin Tropical is a very intelligent film that empowers the viewer by allowing them to choose an ending through its ambiguity.