Daniel and Andrés have been friends since boyhood. They seem inseparable. But when the pair decide to hang out for a night of beer and billiards, Daniel learns that his ailing aunt has died in her sleep – a catastrophic discovery, because his “tita” was the only family he had left.
So begins “Espejismo” (“Mirage”), an impressive new feature film by Costa Rican director José Miguel González Bolaños. “Espejismo” premiered at the International Costa Rican Film Festival last November, and enthusiastic reviews led to a limited release across the country.
As “Espejismo” unfolds, we learn early on not to trust its images. Characters appear, say nothing, and then vanish. Daniel is an artist, and his paintings take on metaphysical importance, as do certain objects in his lonely, cluttered house. From one scene to another, it is difficult to tell whether we are seeing actual people and events or the morose hallucinations that Daniel endures.
González is clearly a youthful director, someone mixing college-aged questions (What is reality?) with very adult themes (loss, loyalty, friendship). González also wrote the screenplay, and he takes his time telling the story. At times “Espejismo” is slow, and the denouement is too predictable to merit this drag. But it is relieving to see a movie crafted so well: González’s cinematography is spectacular, and Edín Solís Rodríguez’s symphonious score is so beautiful that it nearly steals the show. González flirts with surrealism, but he stays focused on the story. What could devolve into a cheap psychological thriller remains a family drama to the end, and that alone is a testament to González’s maturity as a storyteller.
As Daniel and Andrés, Abelardo Vladich and Luis Andrés Solano Rodríguez are decent actors with difficult roles to play. Neither character is well developed, and for a while the anxious, fraternal Andrés is far more engaging than Daniel, who spends much of the film as a quiet, tortured downer. But their bond is palpable, and it is clear that they are more like brothers than best buds.
Perhaps González’s most striking creation is Liz, the blue-haired young woman who both unites Daniel and Andrés and causes a rift between them. It is typical for male auteurs to write boring female characters, a milquetoast Madonna or whore or comedienne. Liz is none of the above. She dresses like a punk-rocker without ever being hostile or even uncivil. At first glance, Liz looks like a Hot Topic cashier, but actress Liz Rojas Rodríguez musters all the seductive power of a femme fatale. All three leads have a charisma that sneaks up on the audience, and although the script relies more on imagery than words, their genuineness is enchanting.
Like “Caribe” and “El Regreso” before it, “Espejismo” proves just how much a Costa Rican director can accomplish with the right equipment, budget and talent. But unlike those predecessors, “Espejismo” uses Costa Rica as a backdrop, not a narrative focus. We see sloped streets and uneven sidewalks, gated houses and tropical decor, but the film might as well take place in Cleveland. This is its own achievement: González sees no need to set the stage, to prove the film’s local authenticity. He leaps right into the story. González has demonstrated a bold vision, and he deserves to make a second film.
That said, he also deserves an audience, and it is hard to predict the future of “Espejismo.” When I saw the film earlier this week, I was the only person in the audience; every other seat was empty. Granted, I was catching a matinee at Nova Cinemas in Escazú, hardly the most sociable time or place to see a movie, but the empty auditorium was disheartening. It is often said that independent films often receive more attention and respect outside their home country. When “Espejismo” inevitably becomes a streaming video online, I hope people download it all over the world. The film isn’t a masterpiece, but with a little encouragement, González might just make one.