Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
And then the Heart of the Heavens cast a vapor [un vaho] over their eyes, which misted up, just as when one breathes upon the surface of a mirror. Their eyes fogged up, and they could see only what was near. Only this was clear to them. – Popol Vuh, sacred book of the Maya
Gods all over the world seem to jealously guard their knowledge, doing everything possible to keep their creations incapable of reaching their heights of omniscience. Without clear vision and understanding, the poor humans stumble through life, rarely seeing “the big picture” or putting all the pieces together to understand why they act as they do. In the case of Alejandro Gerber Bicecci’s VAHO (2009), his three main characters, young men in their late teens or early 20s – José, Felipe, and Andrés – are lost and unsure of what to do with their lives. They live in the most arid region of a sprawling Mexico City – the eastern edge of the valley, Iztapalapa, once a land of beautiful lakes (Texcoco being the principal one) which provided bathing water for the fastidious Aztecs, as well as fish, fowl, and transportation routes. Now it is a dry lakebed overburdened by continuous population growth eastward from the historic capital.
VAHO opens with a prologue, which we will eventually understand as affecting the lives of our three protagonists. Efrén, a man who sells water from his truck, has brought a young prostitute, Emilia, for an “afternoon delight” to interrupt his rounds of filling his truck with increasingly scarce water. It is 1964, the year that the world-class Museo de Antropología opened in Chapultepec Park and became one of Mexico City’s treasures. A radio announcer talks about the enormous engineering feat of moving a gigantic statue of Tlaloc, Aztec god of rain, to the entrance of the grounds of the museum. Tlaloc may be traveling to a new home in the lush park, but he has obviously turned his back on this region in which Efren and Emilia have very quick sex. The cries of a baby attract Emilia, who discovers the infant attached to the breast of his mother, dead from dehydration. Neither Efrén nor Emilia would consider leaving the baby to die also, so they become a couple of sorts for a few years. The baby is named Efrencito by his new mother, something which greatly displeases Efrén. But he sees the value of the event, perhaps had even heard the Argentinean tale of La Difunta Correa, a woman who died in a high South American desert in 1841 and to whom were attributed many miracles because of the survival of her baby despite her death. Just as in the folk legend of Argentina, in VAHO believers come to the new shrine built by Efrén on the burial site of the unknown difunta [dead woman] and pour water onto the dry ground while asking for help with a problem.
After the prologue of two nearly adjacent time periods, 1964 - 1967 or 1968, when Efrencito is 3-4 years old, we move to the present and begin learning about the three young men who will be the focus of the film. José is the son of Efrén, who is now principally an ice maker with his own business. By the standards of Iztapalapa, he is successful, a hard-working man with steady income. José also has dreams, but the water he wants to work with will be for washing windshields on a street in Coyoacán, one of the oldest and most fashionable neighborhoods of Mexico City, where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived. José has a steady girl friend, whom he inexplicably calls Yolanda Vómito, but despite his disrespect he can visit her any night for sex in her bed. She is not impressed with his windshield washing dreams and scoffs at the idea this will be his way up the economic ladder.
The second protagonist, Felipe, runs a small cyber-cafe with fewer than a dozen computers. He visits online chat rooms and braggadociously logs on as 30cmsdepasion (“30 Centimeters of Passion”). More darkly, he is a cyber stalker who hacks into one particular girl’s email account, looks at her photos, reads and erases her mail, and writes new messages from an “unknown admirer.” He certainly writes better Spanish than one of her admirers, so we realize that he got a good public school education. On his way home, he stands outside a place which is obviously a low-rent bordello, but he doesn’t go in. At home we discover that his mother pays excessive, smothering attention to him. Taking all these impressions together, we can assume that, unlike José, Felipe has not had much success with girls.
Andrés is the third protagonist, who tries to help his drunken father’s plumbing business, but is looking for something much deeper, more spiritual in his life. He thinks he has found it with a group of danzantes, who study the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs and practice their religion through dance, handed directly down from their indigenous ancestors.
This pursuit is in contrast to Andrés’s father, who for 14 years participated in the famous Pasión de Cristo procession in Iztapalapa. Surrounded by thousands of spectators, hundreds of people take up crosses, try to carry them over six miles barefooted, all in emulation of Christ. But the plumber had always dreamed of being selected to portray Christ on the cross, an honor among these very Catholic believers. Failing that, he turned to alcohol. Cruelly or cynically he makes fun of his son’s interest in religious beliefs predating the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico in 1519. But Andrés is undeterred.
Once the three characters are established, the director switches back and forth to various moments, often failures, within their present lives. All are likable or sympathetic in some ways, but we may begin to wonder if this is going to simply be a portrait of three young men in a poor neighborhood and what the hell the desert prologue has to do with them. Soon they all seem to have reached a major obstacle. Simultaneously comes a failure of the municipal water system. Just like in decades before their birth, water trucks come to the neighborhood to let people fill up buckets for their basic needs. At that moment José, Felipe, and Andrés see each other. Only then do we discover that they went to the same grade school eight years before. José asks, “Does the whole world have to run out of water for us to meet up again?”
Reunited, they spend a bit of time looking at porn in the cybercafé run by Felipe, but the more practiced (but now abandoned) José says he has had enough of it. Andrés spies an ID sitting on Felipe’s desk and asks enigmatically if he is still collecting them. We will understand only later the import of that question.
A mystery seems to be at the heart of this reunion, something which kept the childhood friends apart for ten years. The director begins providing hints of clues from this point on. First José breaks a framed picture of his father with his ice truck (featuring an “Eskimo”). There are other pictures behind the frame: a postcard “Recuerdo de el Santuario de la Santa Difunta de los Milagros. Mexico” (Souvenir of the Sanctuary of the Holy Dead Woman of the Miracles – literal translation), a reference to the religious shrine set up by Efrén in the mid-60s. There is also a photo of Efrén and Emilia with Efrencito at the Santuario. But the father grabs the photos away with no explanation. José has known nothing of the events of the prologue.
In one of the two most moving scenes in the film, Felipe watches a procession of whores come out of the bordello with a bell, candles, and the photo of a child, the same one we have just seen in the hands of José and his father. Felipe seems to understand something still unknown to us. At the ice factory Efrén and José pause as they hear the bell of the procession. “Another year has passed,” says José. Stopping before a school, the women put their flowers and candles down to accompany the photo of Efrencito. It is a shrine, such as can be seen in Texas wherever someone has died (often in a car accident). It is a place to honor the soul and perhaps to even let it leave the traumatic location. There is a sign which says, “Born in 1964. Died on 19 April 2000. QEPD, Que en Paz Descanse, May He Rest in Peace.”
To understand how Efrencito died in his mid-30s at this school, the director very cleverly offers a shot of Andrés blowing his breath upon a window glass and writing the name Abigail, a character we have not yet met. We cut to the fateful year 2000, eight years before, when the three boys are in grade school with two girls important to them, Abigail, and Yolanda -- yes, Vómito. Abigail is a very smart, cool little girl giving a talk from the Mayan Popol Vuh, a book of history and myths, one of the few rescued from the fires of criminally ignorant 16th century Spanish priests, who saw demons in everything created by the Mayans, Aztecs, and other indigenous civilizations of the New World. The young self-assured girl is talking about the gods being bored and lonely. The animals they created only made “funny noises,” so they made a man from corn (the staff of life within the New World). This new creation was perfect – too perfect and intelligent. The gods feared he might overthrow them, so he and all his descendants must be impeded. To limit their knowledge and understanding one of the gods blew water vapor [echó el vaho] over their eyes, not blinding them, but limiting their sight and vision. Humans lost the deep understanding they had enjoyed at the beginning. They were no longer perfect. They could no longer foresee possible results of present actions.
In the three boys we already see the characteristics of the young adults we have already met. José is the jokester, already casting ugly nicknames on girls like Yolanda, making animal noises during Abigail’s class presentation. Andrés is a quiet leader, taller than the other two, the settler of quarrels. He keeps Yolanda’s barrette, but this minor theft has none of the consequences of Felipe’s theft of Abigail’s school ID card. Already Felipe is a voyeur, too afraid to reveal his feelings, taunted by José. This theft will set in motion a horrible series of acts and reactions as irrational mob mentality sweeps through the neighborhood. Such a seemingly little thing – stealing and keeping the photo ID of a girl that a boy likes. But because of the vaho over the eyes of children and adults alike, dreadful consequences arise.
If this were a traditionally religious film, then the day of La Pasión de Cristo would bring redemption and salvation for the three young men. The partially documentary footage of La Pasión from 2007 and 2008 incorporated into the narrative provides a powerful setting for these young men finally trying to make sense of a major event in their childhood. They will not participate in the procession, only observe
According to one article, the now famous Passion Play of Iztapalapa originated during an outbreak of cholera in 1833. An image of Christ (“Señor de la Cuevita” (Lord of the Little Cave) was brought out of a church and carried in procession through the streets of Iztapalapa. The natural ending of the epidemic was seen as a miracle, and a new cult arose, which eventually began performing a Passion Play, tolerated by the Catholic Church but not incorporated into its liturgy. It was not the first in the New World, since versions of the final events of Christ’s life had been enacted to teach Christianity to the indigenous people. What is particularly interesting about the Passion Play of Iztapalapa is that the hill which represents Golgatha was also the hill for the New Fire ceremonies of the Aztecs – a belief that every 52 years the earth was in danger of being abandoned by the Sun. On this hill various ceremonies would take place to entice the sun to return to the skies. It is also a place where the boys play.
Wordlessly looking at each other in different parts of the crowd watching the procession in the present day, José, Felipe, and Andrés leave to begin making amends for the past. Andrés bathes his father’s bloody feet and tells him it doesn’t matter that he was unable to walk the entire ten kilometers carrying the wooden cross. Felipe finally enters the room of the prostitute Emilia, places Abigail’s ID card on her household shrine in honor of her adopted son Efrencito and confesses his guilt for the terrible events of 19 April 2000. José goes with his father in the Ice truck to the dry lakebed, right where the film began, where Efrencito was rescued from his dead mother’s dry breast, eventually to be raised by the prostitute, but ignored by Efrén who would eventually have his own son to raise. As the camera leaves the father and son in the present, we see a woman on the horizon, her face burned and blistered by the sun, an infant shielded in her rebozo. She is looking for water but there is none. Her death will set in motion the events of VAHO. It has all come full circle, but we understand so much more about the three main characters, who can now go into the next stage of manhood, hopefully freed from guilt and ignorance.
Alejandro Gerber Bicecci was born in a greener area of Mexico City in late 1977 and got his degree at the foremost film school in Mexico, the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica. While editing a documentary at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Iztapalapa, he used public transportation to and from his home. Looking out the windows of taxis and mini-buses, he saw so many interesting people on the streets. He knew he wanted to make a film about three boys, whose characters he was already fleshing out in his mind, but he decided against placing them in the more recognizable areas of the City. Iztapalapa became the setting he knew he must use. Though apparently not strongly religious, he knew that he would have to use scenes from the Passion Play, primarily as a “social event which gives cohesion to the community.”
Gerber Bicecci was certain that the environment of Iztapalapa would have everything to do with the marginalized and limited dreams these boys could have. If they were going to accomplish a satisfying life, they would have to struggle. They would not be bored and simply passing their time watching TV, as in too many films about adolescents. He wanted to make a movie about characters who make mistakes. They want very simple things but to get them they make a lot of errors on their path, which makes them grow up (or not).
After working out the personalities of the three characters, he wondered how they might be 8-10 years after losing track of each other. Not a believer in predestination, he allowed the scriptwriting to suggest what their paths might be. With the idea of the vaho in place, he knew that they would be struggling, trying to make sense of their lives and their place in society. He speaks eloquently of this idea of the film spread over our eyes: “The vaho can be the prejudices we have towards certain situations or people. Or poorly understood things. El vaho can be the past – being incapable of getting on, of transcending a past which has traumatized you in some way.” But he refused to allow any kind of divine intervention, a deus ex machina beloved of the Greeks whose dramatic characters often got out of a jam thanks to a timely visit from a god. Instead, “it would be the characters themselves with their own decisions who would take things to wherever they would go.”
When asked about the seemingly complex structure of the film, he refers to his appreciation for the works of the Argentinean writer/scientist, Ernesto Sabato, especially his 1961 novel On Heroes and Tombs, “in which the principal story is interrupted in the middle by another completely different one. Only by the end of the novel do you return to the first story and understand the characters from a different perspective. That’s what I wanted to achieve with the episode of the three boys, where you are following their story which seems to be going nowhere. In their past is an event which has everything to do with how they are in the present.” Gerber Bicecci achieves his goal admirably.
Another thing he did really well was have a different photographic style for the three time periods (1964-1967, 2000, and the present). The prologue was purposely washed out, with a magenta tone at times, people and space bleached by a relentless sun. He also decided to use a crane for those early scenes (and the final one). In effect, we are the gods looking down upon these poor humans – joyless sex in a water truck, a dead mother with a crying baby, dry and dusty landscape blowing away, and eventually religious exploitation of the “Miracle of the Holy Dead Woman.” In the present, when the three protagonists are introduced, the camera is almost nailed to the floor, simply observing and even allowing some things to take place or be said outside the frame. For the events of 2000, when the boys are in school, the style is, according to Gerber Bicecci, one of an adventure film with a tragic end.
I have now seen VAHO three times and upon the second viewing I came to realize that besides being beautifully photographed and focused on three interesting young characters, it is a very carefully constructed film, one whose very structure comments on human lives and the need for reflection and self-understanding. Children can’t always understand the effects of traumatic events, but as adults they are wise to look back and see how their lives have been affected by traumatic events. With such understanding the vaho might be lifted.