We don’t need science to tell us that almost everybody watches porn at least once in their life. The internet is fifty percent porn and for the most part what people consume is pretty prosaic. But some of it’s a little weird. And some of it’s a lot weird. Incest porn is on the a lot weird end, but for the most part it’s not real. Those people onscreen may look alike, but they’re probably not related. But supposing some of it was real and there were people out there willing to pay top dollar for authenticity…
The Sinaloa Cartel, or some other shady Latin American crime syndicate, is here to cater to those needs and Daniel y Ana, directed by Michel Franco, is here to tell the story of a brother and sister (Dario Yazbek Bernal and Marimar Vega) who are caught in the middle. It is a closely observed film, taking stock of the scars that form after a shared trauma and asking (but not answering) what the Hell has happened to the world when sex is deployed as a weapon.
The elephant in the room should be obvious. Daniel and Ana are attractive siblings kidnapped by criminals and forced to have sex on camera. How does one deal with that reality? We know that the actors playing the characters aren’t related, but perhaps we feel some anxiety that when the scene comes we might find ourselves at least somewhat aroused, and then what?
Franco deserves credit for not letting the audience off the hook. The act, as I will euphemistically call it, is shown from start to finish. It isn’t pornographic by any means, but the direction doesn’t take short cuts. It is presented so clinically that any erotic charge that may have existed vanishes. We are watching two pretty people who happen to be naked being hurt without anyone drawing blood. They are harmed by their captors, or forced to harm one another, and worse, they are transformed. The execution is not lurid, and there’s no rhyme or reason for how it happens. It just does. There are no races against the clock to hunt down the perpetrators, none of blood-soaked revenge beats that tend to sexualize the crime they’re supposedly tearing down. No false messages of empowerment. This is a movie that simply wouldn’t know what to do with Lisbeth Salander, who looks even more cartoonish when compared to the naturalism displayed here.
Here come the half-assed Halloween costumes and conversations with people who took one women’s studies course.
Once they are released, Daniel and Ana must make their way in a world where sex is no longer a past time or a lark, or even an expression of love, but a hole at the center of their beings. Those who are even a little familiar with the film will know that Daniel does not cope well. Can we blame him for what he does, or can’t we? Neither of them can be expected to function in a society that can’t even have serious conversations about consensual sex that don’t involve handwringing and Rick Santorum comparing what you do with your junk to the ovens at Auschwitz.
The young leads handle their very difficult roles with grace and believability. It cannot be easy to play a broken person, someone without any flash and very little to say because, well, what the Hell do you say after something so horrible has occurred? Bernal, younger brother of Gael Garcia, is particularly affecting because he allows himself to be a cypher. His face betrays so little emotion that we wonder if perhaps he has none left to display. Philosophers spend a lot of breath talking about the problem of evil, even though good is so much more inscrutable. We are aware of the world in which Daniel lives and all of its cruelty. The real question is not why anybody would do something evil, but why they wouldn’t.
*You try writing jokes about this damn movie that don’t make you feel like a douche bag. Incest and rape aren’t exactly a comedy goldmine. I couldn’t even think of the name of the sex move Rick seems to be indicating up there. Hasty Lobster? Wounded Marmoset? The Weird Baby Arm?
This is a deeply sad film that finds, wisely, there are no easy answers. Some viewers, wishing for more black and white moral judgments, might even find its tone a wee be nihilistic. In finding nothing to say, it makes a bold decision to avoid the easy clichés of so many other films about rape. Watch with caution and care.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every shot featuring Daniel looking at the ground.
Take a Drink: because the following is featured on the IMDB parent’s guide: “Some of the characters smoke cigarettes and during a party and [at] a wedding alcohol is drunk by the guests.” For real.
Drink a Shot: fill in your own joke here. That was exhausting.