this is not berlin review

In This Is Not Berlin, a group of truant artists discuss what makes art. “Whether you like it or not, art is political, man!” one declares. But another responds, “Art is whatever means one thing to us today.”

This Is Not Berlin is a movie that lives in the moment, despite being set in a time and place that is rife with political unrest. Set in Mexico City in 1986, This Is Not Berlin is a vibrant, alive, and dirty snapshot of a Mexican counterculture that we know little of, and that the movie doesn’t much care to explain. Director Hari Sama is not here to give you a history lesson, but to recapture the era’s crumbling hedonism in a film that is about politics and not about politics at all.

In an exhilarating, sometimes infuriating, coming-of-age tale, This Is Not Berlin follows two best friends from middle-class families in 1986, in the midst of World Cup fever in Mexico. Feeling trapped by their sheltered existence, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Léon) and Gera (José Antonio Toledano) convince Gera’s sister Rita (Ximena Romo) to take them out to a club, introducing them to the wild world of sex, drugs, and punk rock. But as Carlos, whose sensitive nature has always left him out of step with their group of rowdy school friends, finds himself further entrenched in this world and its thriving LGBT community, he and Gera begin to grow apart.

Carlos finds himself a family in this world and immediately fits right in once Rita’s band discovers his knack for fixing their music equipment. He soon catches the eye of the scene’s resident art star Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), a boundary-pushing prodigy who takes Carlos under his wing. Soon Carlos is shaving his long air and wearing eyeliner, earning him mockery at school where he gets bullied for being gay. But there’s a sense that he doesn’t care much for his sexual identity as he does for the feeling of acceptance that he has long struggled to find, and has discovered within this counterculture world.

This Is Not Berlin is a whirlwind of a film that offers penetrating insight into the anarchic counterculture world of 1980s Mexico. It’s an era that we’ve rarely seen in cinema before, and Sama rushes headlong into this world with a sort of defiant glee, his camera reveling in its excess and youthful vigor. But that particular meandering narrative is why the middle of the film begins to lose its steam. As Carlos begins to lose himself in the chaotic rebellion of the community, so too does the film lose its luster — though perhaps that’s what this film is about. AIDS and the troubled politics of the time period are but a distant dream to the characters of This Is Not Berlin. Nico enlists Carlos to become part of his political art pieces — one in which a group of naked youths parade the streets screaming about LGBT discrimination, another in which they hijack a government event to screen videos of lewd images — which all seem to be oddly empty of actual political statements. At one of Nico’s wild parties, one of his fellow artists berates him for living it up while AIDS is killing their brethren one at a time, but is only brushed off. It raises the question of what they’re rebelling against. The man? Society? Themselves? While not devoid of politics, This Is Not Berlin is more interested in the drama of it all.

Carlos and Gera, portrayed admirably by Ponce de Léon and Toledano, respectively, are the heart of this film, even if This Is Not Berlin loses sight of it temporarily in the midst of its displays of hedonism. The rift that grows between Carlos and Gera is as much about Carlos’ questioning of his sexuality as it does about the two boys’ different views of the counterculture world they so desperately want to be a part of. Carlos views it as a new home, but Gera views it as an escape. This difference in perspective is what leads to the life-threatening climax of the film, and the revelations that come with it. But their emotional confrontation during this climax is what brings this film together, and gives meaning to its aimless narrative. Youth is messy, it’s unpredictable, it’s unseemly. This Is Not Berlin embodies all of that with intoxicating gusto.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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