By Jordan Cronk
Published in Cinema Scope #84 (Fall 2020)
There’s a point in nearly every Nicolás Pereda film when the narrative is either reoriented or upended in some way. In the past this has occurred through bifurcations in story structure or via ruptures along a given film’s docufiction fault line. Pereda’s ninth feature, Fauna, extends this tradition, though its means of execution and conceptual ramifications represent something new for the 38-year-old Mexican-Canadian filmmaker. Following a decade working at the intersection of fiction and documentary, Pereda has, in recent years, mostly forgone the aesthetics of nonfiction in favour of a unique form of narrative cinema in which real-world issues and anxieties are couched in forms at once grave and fantastical. In the medium-length films Minotaur (2015) and My Skin, Luminous (2019, co-directed by Pereda’s longtime lead actor Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez), Pereda refracted ideas related to storytelling, rituals, and pedagogy through an oneiric lens that quietly conjured a kind of hallucinatory social drama bereft of the simplicity and didacticism that tends to mar such culturally conscious cinema. Less dreamlike but equally imaginative, Fauna charts a sidelong course around one of Mexico’s more pressing sociopolitical concerns—the impact of narco culture on Mexican society and its troubling representation in the media—by situating its characters within a subtly expanding dramaturgical framework in which notions of performance and identity are made to blur and reanimate as the narrative shifts between the quaint and the cryptic.
Carefully composed but unassuming, the film’s opening moments suggest something far more mundane than what eventually takes shape. Through the windshield of a moving car, cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro’s camera peers across a hilly expanse, all dusty slopes, winding roads, and vanishing horizon lines. Somewhere in the north of Mexico, thirtysomething partners Luisa (Luisa Pardo) and Paco (Francisco Barreiro) are making the slow trek to a remote mining town to visit Luisa’s parents. On the way there they’ll meet Luisa’s estranged brother, Gabino (Rodríguez), in an affable but awkward encounter that hints at the strange family dynamic that Paco will be forced to navigate—particularly when Luisa’s father (José Rodríguez López) learns that Paco is an actor with a recurring role in a narco-themed television show. Following a wonderfully embarrassing introduction in which an unwitting Paco buys the local market’s last pack of cigarettes off his host for 100 pesos to give to Gabino, the characters gather at the family home, where we witness a sharp contrast between the affection shown by the siblings’ mother (Teresita Sánchez) and the general indifference of their father. Despite the undercurrents of dysfunction, Fauna is a resolutely sly and humorous film, especially in these introductory scenes where the chemistry between the actors—all veterans of Pereda’s cinema—is free to spark in moments of both casual conversation and unspoken discomfort.
As in a number of Pereda’s prior films—most notably Greatest Hits (2012), perhaps Fauna’s closest antecedent—the director’s latest is predicated on a narrative inversion. Here, about halfway through the film, after a conspicuously mannered sequence in which Luisa’s father forces Paco to act out a scene from his TV show in a bar, the story and the characters as we’ve come to know them fall away as Gabino begins to describe to Luisa the plot of a book he’s been reading. Suddenly, we’re transported from the family home to a neo-Western looking motel on the outskirts of town, the setting of Gabino’s book and a location where we now find Pereda’s actors embroiled in a mystery involving a missing activist, an amateur investigator (Rodríguez), twin sisters named Flora and Fauna (both played by Pardo), a low-level criminal (Barreiro), and an unseen group of narcos with nefarious ties to the local mine. A thematic reappraisal of the first half’s implicit sense of malaise and dejection, this intoxicatingly told second story—which plays like a projection of the original characters’ subconscious fantasies—unfurls like a modern day ciné negro, one sparked not through some elaborate backstory (in fact, little context is ever provided) but by a chance phone call and a misunderstanding over a bath towel.
With expert command, Pereda executes this narrative sleight-of-hand through clever character devices and subtle stylistic grace notes. Now reformulated around archetypes and abstracted genre tropes, the film’s second half—flush with red herrings, conspiratorial zooms, and enigmatic voiceover passages—generates a uniquely reflexive dialectic by which Pereda’s leads are made to summon a dual image of both the actor as performer and the character as cultural signifier. In one of the film’s most inspired scenes, Pardo and Rodríguez, playing Flora and the detective character, respectively, act out a future encounter with Fauna—a scene we never see but which is fully understood (and perhaps even more deeply felt) through this prior staging. In these moments, Pereda’s interest in the performative aspects of storytelling and the culturally loaded nature of dramatic re-enactment is brought into stark relief. While still structured around an Apichatpong-esque fissure, Fauna stands far removed from the influences (see also: Tsai, Lisandro Alonso, and Pedro Costa) that have long defined Pereda’s cinema, instead bringing the filmmaker into a lineage of contemporary writer-directors such as Matías Piñeiro and Mariano Llinás, artists whose work deals in large part with performance and techniques of theme and variation—component parts of the cinematic process that most filmmakers go out of their way to disguise. In highlighting these elements, Pereda has found a way to enrich his methodology without betraying the essence or urgency of his critique.
Cinema Scope: Fauna strikes me as arguably your first film to really foreground acting and notions of performance at a conceptual level. Were these ideas what first prompted the film, or did you start thematically, with the spectres of real-world violence that haunt the narrative?
Nicolás Pereda: The film started from several different places. Perhaps the initial drive was a book by Oswaldo Zavala called The Cartels Do Not Exist, where he discusses, among many other things, the problematic representation of narco culture in art, literature, and popular culture. Also, Lázaro Gabino, the main actor of most of my films, wrote a small pamphlet on actors’ ethics that complicated even further my ideas on representation, and in particular the representation of violence in contemporary Mexico. Around 2010 he had a super-small part in a film called El Infierno (2010), where he basically just showed up, yelled a few lines, and got decapitated. This film helped standardize the narco look for local audiences. Also, Francisco Barreiro, the character who plays the actor boyfriend, had just had a small part in the series Narcos: Mexico, similar to his character in Fauna.
But looking back, the film really started as a small family drama: two siblings in their thirties travelling from the city to visit their parents in the countryside. When I write, I almost always know who is going to play each part and where I’m going to shoot. I decided to shoot in a small mining town that I’ve repeatedly visited over the last five years or so. In the film you cannot see the mine that the characters speak of, but there is an actual mine there. During the writing process, I found out that the film El Infierno had been shot there. Once I set the film there, I thought about the relationship between violence and the exploitation of natural resources, something also discussed in Zavala’s book. So, I was writing a film for actors who had played small parts in narco films, in a mining town that had been the setting for a narco film. I tried to write a screenplay that combined all these elements, and then I found a way to reflect upon what I was doing through foregrounding acting and notions of representation and performance, although describing the process this way makes it sound way more calculated than it was.
Actually, this film probably started somewhere else completely: the novel Fauna by Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero. The book has little to do with the film, but it features a private investigator and twin sisters named Flora and Fauna. The whole second part of the film was inspired by that novel, even if at the end the film hardly resembles it.
Scope: Is Levrero’s novel the actual book we see Gabino reading in the film?
Pereda: No, I found that book in the house where we were filming. It’s from a German publishing house called Reclam that publishes tiny yellow books. I assume most German viewers will recognize it and be puzzled, but I chose it because it was small enough that you couldn’t recognize the title. I had thought of using Levrero’s novel, but I forgot it at home.
Scope: I’m wondering if you can discuss your cinema’s relationship with literature? Minotaur and My Skin, Luminous utilize books in symbolic ways, while your films themselves seem to haven taken on a bit more of an overt writer’s sensibility, with Fauna being particularly intricate with regards to the narrative.
Pereda: There is very little relationship between my cinema and literature, or so I’d like to think. Books I read do influence my films a lot, but in the end I’m much more interested in things that fall completely outside of literature, like gestures, laughs, silences, gazes, sounds, movements in space, etc. That is one reason I work with the same actors over and over. I know how they move, how they inhabit space, how they look at each other, etc. In my most recent three films, books play central roles, but in the films they exist mainly as objects, rather than as literature. Perhaps objects with a particular cultural weight, like in Minotaur, or that imply the possibility for storytelling—even the possibility of fantasy—like in My Skin, Luminous and Fauna. In these last two films, books are used to transition the film from one universe to another. However, the films in themselves are not particularly connected to literature, at least not in a traditional sense. What I mean is that I’m not too interested in telling stories: there is little examination of the characters on a psychological level, and, except for a few instances, words are purely transactional. You are right in suggesting that Fauna has an intricate narrative, but I think it’s not the narrative that propels the film—the question, “What is going to happen next?” is not particularly pertinent—but perhaps other less obvious elements, like repetition and performance.
Furthermore, the books and texts that influence my films are all kinds of strange. Levrero’s book The Luminous Novel has been particularly influential, but in it he describes his uneventful daily life in incredible detail. It has very few of the usual things we think about when we think of a novel. Mario Bellatin’s books (one of them appears in My Skin, Luminous) are strange in a very different way. They are books that seem more interested in photography, in the tactile, in the body and its various permutations. When reading his books sometimes you feel immersed in the work of a contemporary visual artist.
Scope: Because of the more complex narrative, did you find the writing process any different or more involved than it was with your prior films? Did the intricacy and nuance of the story affect how your actors worked with the material, or how you worked with the actors, particularly since so much of the film’s intrigue hinges on performance and notions of representation?
Pereda: It was actually a pretty fast process, perhaps because there are more events and the narrative follows some causal relations. In my recent films the writing process had been much slower because in some ways each new scene represented a whole new beginning. I couldn’t just write chains of scenes that followed each other in a logical fashion. It sounds contradictory, but a film like Minotaur, where very little action happens, took me forever to write. The process there was like coming up with a series of sculptures or choreographies. With Fauna I had a pretty concrete path set out from the beginning. In fact, there were many more scenes, particularly in the second part. It was a complex thriller, but during the editing I lost interest in that universe. I got rid of all that and in the second part I privileged what interested me the most: the series of scenes that focus on the absurdity of the missing towels and the scene with Flora and Gabino planning his encounter with Fauna.
I don’t know what the actors think of the screenplay and how they interpret their characters. We don’t really talk about it. I don’t talk to them about the meaning of anything, and while I’m shooting I try not to think about that myself. I focus a lot on the details, rather than the big picture. I care about the words they use, since there is always some degree of improvisation, in how they laugh, how they move, etc. If I were to emphasize, or even suggest to the actors any idea of performativity or of representation, I fear the characters could become caricatures.
Scope: At the same time you’re working with archetypes of a sort, at least in the second half of the film. Can you talk about your working relationship and how your process has evolved with these actors over the years? Greatest Hits utilized a somewhat similar structure to Fauna, but do you think your relationship with your actors had to evolve to the point where they could play and interpret multiple characters (or in certain cases, archetypes) in a single narrative, particularly if, as you say, you’re not communicating much to them about the characters themselves?
Pereda: I remember going to Lázaro’s apartment about two weeks before the shoot to do a very quick rehearsal with him and Luisa. We generally don’t rehearse, because we have enough time during the shoot to stop and think and rewrite and rehearse if we need to. But this time I wanted to talk about how they would be different in the second part of the film, since I feared the whole film could fall apart in that section. We spoke about the wardrobe and the wigs, and then Lázaro tried reading the lines with different intonations, but I felt it was absurd to make him speak and move differently. I also decided to keep the wardrobe relatively similar to the first part. I thought it would be best if the film transformed in a more subtle way. It was enough that the story and the dialogues were completely different. I even felt that the wigs were a crazy move. I’m a bit conservative when it comes to acting, wardrobe, and hair and make-up. I get scared. I actually had to work quite carefully with the dialogue. I specifically remember one dialogue that was particularly difficult for me to accept, until Lázaro and Luisa rehearsed it tirelessly right before we shot it and found the right way to deliver it:
Gabino: I am…
Flora: …a coward.
Gabino: Exactly…That’s why I promise to do everything in my power to help you.
This dialogue, like a couple others in the second part, doesn’t make much sense, and that was the point. I was in unfamiliar territory. Frankly, I would not have done this film if it hadn’t been with Paco, Lázaro, and Luisa. After making so many films with them, I hardly direct them. In our first films, I talked to them a little bit about the ideas, but now I say almost nothing. They decide how to act based on whatever they understand in the script. I generally love what they do. Sometimes, very rarely, they are completely off, so I have to direct them. I always talk in very practical terms, i.e., talk slower, louder, look up, lower your arms, etc., until we find the right expression.
Scope: As far as the look and tone of the second half, other than the character-related details, how did you go about conceptualizing these scenes aesthetically? You’re clearly drawing on genre cinema, while also engaging with the tropes of narco-themed entertainment. How important was it for you to suggest these forms of entertainment without inadvertently glorifying the very thing you’re critiquing?
Pereda: Yes, I remember writing the second part and thinking that it was a bit paradoxical, in that I wanted it to be about how the characters of the first part imagine the local narco universe, and at the same time I needed to avoid the very things I thought they’d imagine. So basically I kept the context, but changed the scenes. I enjoyed writing about the missing towel, because it felt like I was subverting my own idea. I was making fun of myself and my solemn theses about representations of violence and the connection between the exploitation of natural resources and the narco world. I still bring up a disappeared activist miner, and I hint at the intricate, corrupt relationship between narcos and mining magnates, but the main character is always a bit confused and unsure how he ended up in that world. I wasn’t pursuing any kind of clarity. I didn’t want to explain how that world operates; I was more interested in performativity. For example, in the second part, when Paco appears at the restaurant and is super-offensive to Gabino, this could be the beginning of the violence. However, the scene doesn’t reach any resolution, we just see a violent burst, and then Flora comes in and has some kind of performative breakdown that is impossible to understand. Basically, that one shot starts as a stereotypical macho genre scene, and it ends up kind of surreal and oddly framed.
Scope: Did you look at any narco-themed films or TV shows as you prepared the film? Did any specific cultural ideas or representations in those works inspire you, whether for good or ill?
Pereda: I watched the whole first season of Narcos: Mexico. I remember watching the TV show wondering when Paco was going to show up. And then he would appear, slightly out of focus, to the side, for a couple of seconds, and that was that. In the final episode, perhaps even the final scene of the season, there is a long scene where the main capo scolds the rest of the narco heads, and asks them to reunite, to form the biggest narco empire the world has seen, or something like that. Paco is one of the scolded ones and gets a decent amount of screen time in silence. In Fauna, when the father asks Paco to act, Paco performs that scene. Initially he performs his character in the series, but afterwards the father complains that he didn’t say anything, so Paco usurps the character of the main capo and performs that role instead. I didn’t write those lines, I just transcribed them from the TV show.
Watching this show, recognizing a couple of friends in it and even more in the credits, was a bit depressing. It felt as if they were quitting their perfectly good jobs to join a pyramid scheme. But the scene I described above is maybe my favourite scene in the film, and I owe it to that stupid show.
Initially I wanted Joaquín Cosío to play the father. He is super-famous in Mexico for playing a character called Cochiloco in the film I mentioned before, El Infierno. If you say his name in Mexico no one will know whom you are talking about, but if you mention Cochiloco, everyone would. That character was a kind of prototype for all TV and film narcos to come. The film was shot in the same town where I shot Fauna, an end-of-the-road town in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t seek out the town; it was a complete coincidence. I wanted to reference more of El Infierno in Fauna, and Joaquín Cosío was the vehicle for that, but after a little while of talking to him, he turned me down. I think I’m glad it didn’t work out. He plays many more narcos in other films and TV shows, including an important role in Narcos: Mexico, and he is always Cochiloco. I’ve never met him, and while I suspect he is nothing like that caricature he constructed for himself, I wonder if he would have liked playing a completely different character.
Scope: To my eyes your films have slowly moved away from nonfiction, or at least nonfiction as a conceptual device. Do you think this is a fair assessment, and, if so, has it been a conscious decision? It seems to me that the real-world elements in your recent films have been folded into narrative structures with stronger and clearer ties to fiction than ever before.
Pereda: It’s true. Before I made my first film I wasn’t interested in nonfiction at all. In fact, I kind of stumbled upon nonfiction. It came to me while I was making those first films because I was casting people to play a version of themselves in their own homes. There were a lot of scenes with no dialogue and I was more or less just filming bodies, and I wasn’t asking them to move in ways they would not ordinarily move. It’s hard to describe, but there was a feeling of nonfiction in many of the scenes. For the next eight years or so I worked very closely with these ideas of nonfiction penetrating and overtaking the fictional world. But then somehow I got excited about the possibilities of fiction. I used to spend time with Matías Piñeiro when I lived in New York, and perhaps his enthusiasm for fiction rubbed off on me. It’s definitely not a conscious thing. I only recognize it in retrospect.
Scope: Piñeiro was one of the first people I thought of while watching the film, though the way you work through these ideas narratively eventually sent me back even further, to someone like Kiarostami, who often used performativity as a conceptual device within and between films. Is this another reason you like to utilize the same actors from film to film, to create connections within your work and to generate a continuum whereby the viewer is able to watch both the person and the performer?
Pereda: Perhaps, though to be honest the actual reason why I work with the same actors from film to film is much more practical and trivial: they are my friends, I think they are good actors, and I enjoy working with them. However, upon reflection, I see a body of interconnected works that constantly reference each other, that become more interesting as a whole. Some films make direct references to other films, but for the most part, at least for me, the films feel something like musical variations of a lost theme. When I start writing a new screenplay, I automatically see the four of them: Lázaro, Luisa, Paco, and Teresa. It’s not a completely conscious decision. For me, writing characters means reconfiguring the relationships between these four people. And then, when we shoot, the screenplay adapts to them, not the other way around. In that sense, the characters are vehicles to make portraits of the performers.
Scope: What do you think this new way of working in fiction has brought to your cinema, and where do you go next?
Pereda: I’m still interested in how the mundane, the everyday, shapes and in many ways defines our lives. Exploring more intricate fictions opens up new aesthetic possibilities. I don’t know where this will lead, but I’m certain that, on the one hand, I will continue exploring the mystery of the everyday (and the everydayness of that mystery), and on the other, while exploring the possibilities of fiction, I will continue to treat story as only one element of a large and complex organism.