Berlinale 2019: A Devastating “Pray The Gay Away” Drama, Film Companion

The festival brochure has this to say about Jayro Bustamante’s Temblores: “Pablo falls in love with Francisco and leaves his devout evangelical family in Guatemala City.” That’s not quite true. We don’t see where and when and how Pablo — who looks to be in his early forties, with stylishly graying hair — “falls in love”. There are no darting glances, there’s no first date. Instead, the film opens with Pablo’s (Juan Pablo Olyslager) family gathered in the living room, as he strides past them and locks himself in his bedroom. They know about Francisco. They want Pablo to snap out of it, as is evident from their grim pronouncements through the course of the film. His father says, “A solid family is all that matters.” His mother says, “You just have to ask for God’s help.” His wife says, “I know deep down you are not like this.”

But she’s wrong. Pablo is gay. He is also religious. His gay side comes out, so to speak, when he leaves home, to be with the lower-class, more laidback Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua). And his Catholic upbringing comes out when he begins to have doubts. (Francisco is far more comfortable with his sexuality.) His wife gets him fired from his job. She prevents him from seeing his children. His mother pushes him towards some kind of religious conversion therapy, so he can be saved from being “in the valley of the shadow of death”. (Nature, meanwhile, is amping up the drama with downpours and tremors.) But it’s not just all this pressure from Pablo’s family. It’s also that he begins to wonder if it’s worth being gay (in the “happy” sense of the word as well) if this results in the unhappiness of everyone dear to him.

Bustamante was at the Berlinale earlier with Ixcanul (2015). He said, in Variety, “I wanted to understand how an educated man could end up caught up in his own close-minded particular prison, how the religious environment, political repression and the traditional family could suppress a man’s natural sexuality.” But education can do little in the face of the deepest-held beliefs. What seems to be the story of a man who overcomes obstacles to finally be who he is, turns into something darker and unpredictable. The scene towards the end where Pablo calls Francisco home is something that will polarise viewers (one critic I spoke to hated it), and the last shot is devastating. No words are spoken. It’s just an exchange of looks. What you make of those looks will decide what you think of this devastating drama.


A digitally restored print of Ruchir Joshi’s 38-minute documentary, Tales from Planet Kolkata (1993), played in the Forum section. The avant-garde film opens with a recreation of the famous image from Apocalypse Now (a white man in a Third World country, a rotating fan, sounds of a helicopter outside), and this man’s first words are, “Calcutta… Shit!” Pop culture references abound, from Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy to the Roland Joffe film it inspired (we see scenes of the shooting), from Godard and Alberto Moravia (whose novel was turned into Contempt) to Louis Malle’s “invisible camera”. “Part fiction, part spoof, part essay, part documentary”, the programme notes say, and the images coalesce into a collage of Western perceptions of the city. Did the director really meet Jack Nicholson after being bumped up to first class on a flight, and did he really ask the star to play his teacher (and intellectual maverick), Deepak Majumdar? By the end, it matters little. This anecdote, too, becomes part of the city’s mythology.


Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees is a delightful addition to the sub-genre of movies about loving movies. Think Cinema Paradiso — but with a bittersweet undercurrent. If the villain in that earlier film was the conservative Church, here, it’s the country itself, riddled with crisis. Four old friends face miles of red tape as they attempt to revive a derelict cinema house and start screening films again. Indian cinema gets both a pat and a rap. When asked what kind of films they want to see, kids name Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan. But before the chest can swell about the potency of our soft power, a man attributes dwindling audience numbers to the lack of fresh content. “That’s because you started getting all films from India. They are all the same.”


Once again, I paraphrase the synopsis, this time for Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro’s Divine Love: “In the year 2027, in a dystopian Brazil, a deeply religious woman uses her position in a notary’s office to save struggling couples from divorce… [And] she is confronted with a crisis in her own marriage that ultimately brings her closer to God.” I wish I could tell you exactly how close, but that would totally spoil this eroto-religious sci-fi (is that a genre?) that plays out like a cross between a sex orgy and an Ingmar Bergman psychodrama about faith. There’s copious nudity, but rarely has the sight of naked people seemed so touching, so desperate. If the film cannot always sustain its out-there premise, it’s still unique. The closing portions confer the title with a whole new meaning. I didn’t see it coming, and the twist made me smile. I have a tagline ready: “Come for the sex. Stay for the epiphany”.


Subscribe now to our newsletter