A Secret World (Un mundo secreto, 2012) was among 14 films in the fiction feature competition at Cinélatino, Toulouse’s Latin American Film Festival. The film received a special mention from the French critics’ jury. Perhaps more important, though, it also received the ‘Prix lycéen de la fiction’, an prize for best fiction film as awarded by a jury of local high school students: their approval suggests that director Gabriel Mariño did an excellent job of capturing the teenage experience in this film.
The film centres on Maria, a strange young woman who lives in a world of her own. She has just graduated from high school, and has sex with anyone who asks her to. Far from being a seductive glamour girl, though, she dresses in the relaxed uniform of the adolescent: baggy jeans, tank tops, ragged scarves and hoodies. As she heads off for her last day at school, her hair still wet from the shower, her mother tells her that she ought to make more of an effort. Finished with school, Maria immediately sets off alone on a trip across her native Mexico, without telling her mother.
The title of this film made me immediately wary. Taken literally, it offers the promise of entering a private, perhaps magical realm. More often, such a title is metaphorical, and it was the case with this film. Much of Maria’s secret world remains secret: she speaks very little, unwilling to reveal her true thoughts except in her notebook, which she fills with skilful sketches and strange messages, addressing herself as though she were another person. Maria reads these messages aloud to the audience, as slowly as she writes them. Even the notebook reveals little about her, except that she sways between typical teenage extremes of self-love and self-loathing. More commonly, and most maddeningly, Maria’s ‘secret world’ is conveyed through long takes of her face in profile, with an expression of docile distrust, staring into space. These shots often leave the background out of focus, as if to emphasise Maria’s complete absorption in her own world.
The interest that this film holds is, above all, in its cinematography. A very promising director, Gabriel Mariño grabs the audience from the get-go with striking, beautifully composed shots of Mexican landscapes, both urban and rural. These lyrical shots, characterised by their sensitivity to detail and seductive patches of bright colour, entrance the audience in the absence of a more involving, better-developed narrative. For Maria herself is an exasperating character: we feel sympathy for her, but it is irritating when a protagonist keeps nearly everything on the inside. She meets three different people on her trip, people who take care of her, take advantage of her, or a bit of both. It is surprising that anyone approaches her at all, as she is so begrudging in her conversation: it is always someone else who has to take the first step.
Maria does finally meet a gentle young man, Juan, who gets to know her before sleeping with her, and actually makes her smile when she has sex, rather than lying bored and passive as she does with every other partner. Yet even with him, she is only slightly more talkative. Juan tells Maria his own story: a harrowing explanation of why he has had to defy his parents’ wishes and head to the US to earn a living. In return, Maria tells him about a dream she had, in which a whale plays a magical role and her mother a sinister one. Juan confronts the unknown in America, going to work in a country he has never previously set foot in. He asks Maria, who visited the States as a child, what it is like, but her experience was quite different from what his will be: she is only familiar with tourist attractions like Disneyland and shopping malls. Although the director says that he wanted his film to convey the uncertainty of the future for today’s youth in an increasingly violent Mexico, Maria’s experiences seem much less compelling than Juan’s, making the audience wonder why the movie wasn’t about Juan instead.
Exactly why Maria appears so detached from the world is never made clear. Her problems with her mother seem fairly typical for an adolescent. Of greater concern is her combination of solitude and sexual passivity: a girl on her own, there for the taking, with no friends to guide her or give her support. Although she does achieve a victory of sorts at the end of the film, Maria remains solitary and her inner thoughts mysterious—too mysterious. The director had a noble objective in using Maria as a symbol of aimless youth, but the other problem, that of violence, remains very much in the background. There is no reason to wish for more violence in a film, but if the director wanted to confront this particular problem, it was not enough to introduce Juan’s brief account of it. While Maria’s attitude and experiences may correspond to that of Western youth in general, her life is too turned in on itself to speak about Mexico’s own wider problems.