For many throughout the world poverty is an inescapable part of everyday life. For the characters of Arturo Ripstein’s latest film, Bleak Street, the omnipresent shadow of their impoverished lives force these people into a corner, where morality and survival represent a fork in the road. This sad, understated drama of two aging prostitutes working the streets of a poor Mexican town is stunning with its black and white cinematography and heartbreaking with the despair and problems that arise from another day of living. Bleak Street is darkly comic and carries itself with a film noir feel, accentuated by the shadows that sketch out this small town and its depraved corners. This is a movie that lives up to its title.
Aging isn’t easy when your job is the world’s oldest profession. For Dora (Nora Velázquez) and Adela (Patricia Reyes Spíndola), every day brings with it a new set of challenges. Dora must contend with her promiscuous daughter and an unloving husband with his own set of sexual preferences that she cannot satisfy. For Adela, she’s lost her longtime street corner to a young set of prostitutes and struggles to care for invalid mother. One evening, the two hookers who have worked aside one another for years have a chance to earn a big payday, servicing two midget wrestlers after their big match. The two wrestlers, who go by the name Little Death (Juan Francisco Longoria) and Little AK (Guillermo López), are identical twins who roam the streets without ever removing their masks. They prefer to do everything together, including their sexual conquests. What may be a big night for all involved turns into a night that will change the lives of everyone, and not for the better.
Ripstein shoots these characters and their situations in long takes, the camera tracking the movements of its characters and fading to black upon a scenes conclusion. The cinematography by Alejandro Cantú is absolutely stunning, as if it were transported from the ‘50s. In many regards, Bleak Street has the visual look of Luis Buñuel’s dalliances into neorealism, a period which Ripstein got his start working under the surrealist master.
The script by Paz Alicia Garcíadiego doesn’t judge the characters despite their unglamorous lives and professions. Though the film doesn’t judge the characters, it never allows them a glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow. The poverty and depravity of their daily lives is a constant, a never-ending struggle that swallows innocence and optimism. These poor women are embodied with perfection by Patricia Reyes Spíndola and Nora Velázquez. The two actresses play off one another like they are old friends trapped in this tragic world. Meanwhile, the miniature luchadores add this undercurrent of surrealism to gritty drama of Bleak Street.
Bleak Street is a movie that doesn’t have too many peers. It’s not quite as audiacious as it sound, but it’s not exactly conventional either. Maybe the easiest way to describe it is that it’s like John Waters and Luis Buñuel collaborated on a Mexican neorealism film. Arturo Ripstein has crafted a film that is compelling as it unfolds and tragic in its reality. Despite its somber overtones, Bleak Street is a pleasant place to visit for 90 minutes. But I certainly wouldn’t want to live there.
Bleak Street begins its exclusive one-week engagement at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on March 11th.