Opening on a soft-spoken note for a film that predominantly focuses on the parental fear and social anxieties of cartel tactics and kidnappings, the first scene in Teodora Ana Mihai’s Un Certain Regard-selected feature focuses on a light conversation between mother and daughter. We witness a brief glimpse of a standard makeup routine and quick banter between Cielo and her Daughter, as the elongated pacing and unobstructed cutting all points towards eventual tragedy. It’s ironic however that — for a film all about a mother’s journey for answers amidst a minefield of suspicious neighbours and politically corrupt systems — the harrowing subject matter at the core of La Civil ultimately proves underwhelming against its constant vitality towards conventionality.
The premise is simple. Daughter is kidnapped, Mother investigates and proceeds to be extorted by a local cartel, and the narrative through-line continues. Yet even with this standard structure, the premise fails to meet up to the standards of other kidnapping dramas. Admittedly, La Civil looks stunning with all of its detailed lighting fixtures. From a simple sunbeam, to a flaming car, and even the dimness of a poorly lit funeral home — there’s an evocative presence of anguish in nearly every scene. Yet, it’s the constant amplification of on-the-nose visual metaphors and stilted dialogue which quickly regresses the film’s technical accomplishments. From a literal narrative beat involving an obligatory second-act hair-cutting transition scene, the film’s constant reliance on pre-existing tropes diminishes the emotional urgency and stakes at the core of Mihai’s well-intentioned debut.
In order to stand out from the crowd, La Civil relies on violence; unafraid of showing the gruesome or tortuous. Stemming from its conventional first act, the film morphs into an incendiary albeit substandard rabbit hole of depravity. The only light at the end of the tunnel is Arcelia Ramírez’s commanding central performance as Cielo; as her harrowing role demands for the hardships and portrayal of various complex facial expressions and natural cues. Without Ramírez and her fascinating work in front of the camera, the dreary screenplay could have easily diminished even more of its pre-existing emotional poignancy.
La Civil’s biggest fault can all be directed back towards its questionable screenwriting. For a film that takes route in the very real trauma of victims affected by cartel exploitation, the conventional narrative beats and poor execution adapted from the original source material does no favours when contrasting reality with fiction. The end result is a disappointing affair, one that could have been graciously altered with more time, patience, and ingenuity within the scripted material.