Niebla de Culpa (Mist of Guilt) (Mexico, 1 hr 10 min)

Directed by: Francisco Laresgoiti

Yolanda travels from her poor town in Michoacán to chaotic Mexico City to take care of a newborn baby, defying Juan her alcoholic and controlling husband. Amanda, a wealthy spoiled woman, calls her former babysitter to sit in for the job. Yolanda accepts the challenge, although she lacks the essential tools to succeed: reading and writing. Amanda and Hans, her husband, take a long trip, leaving Yolanda and the baby adrift. Confusion in the city and illegible symbols haunt Amanda task by task. Lies and miscommunication combined with Juan's continuous drinking only worsens things. These circumstances lead to the sickness and death of the baby. Yolanda tries to hide this tragic event by burying the child near her hometown and kidnapping another baby. Back in Mexico City the tension scales as Juan's plan fails completely, leaving Yolanda stranded and pursued, her destination: prison. Juan hangs himself after being unable to manage the situation. While in prison, Yolanda learns to read and write. The story contrasts the city's brutality with the beauty of a calm countryside: an empty lake at dawn, a picturesque ravine at dusk and a traditional town festivity. The film brings back the essence of Mexico's Golden Age of Cinema combined with a surrealistic approach in many of it's countryside scenes. The film points out the consequences of lying, abuse of confidence and lack of self-esteem: a dramatic representation that pursues a modest illiterate woman.

Review:

Francisco Laresgoiti’s Niebla de Culpa (Mist of Blame) is a movie of contrasts, presenting a rich juxtaposition of Mexico’s rich and poor, old and new, its real and surreal worlds. It is simultaneously audacious, mesmerizing, and infuriating to watch.

The story centers on Yolanda and Juan, an elderly couple who come from a poor town in Michoacán. With finely tuned black and white cinematography and striking wide-framed landscapes, the sense of place in the film holds as much character as its people. The place Yolanda and Juan come from exudes the essence of Mexico’s old world; a misty, rural village of humble farmers and artisans, a place where morality intersects with age-old superstitions, where the hearts of the people are engrained into the heart of the land, the spirit of which is as real as the morning fog rising over its lush pastures. This spirit, a quintessentially Mexican element of magic realism, manifests as a little girl who Juan teasingly names Vaquita (little cow). In her initial manifestations, she is the very image of whimsical purity, appearing to him wide-eyed and barefoot, chewing on a bouquet of alfalfa.

Life in this mystic, pastoral landscape is disrupted when a woman from Mexico City hires Yolanda to take care of her newborn baby. When we meet Yolanda’s employer, Amanda, it is made very evident that she comes from a different world. With her large, luxurious household and posh, multilingual dinner parties, Amanda and her family live in the realm of Mexico’s modern and wealthy elite. Here Yolanda is lost and overwhelmed, burdened by Amanda and her family’s polite expectation to be unconditionally served by those beneath them.

Among these carefully constructed contrasts laid out by the film is a single unifying element: ignorance; an affliction that straddles two worlds, plaguing all of its characters. Despite knowing Yolanda for fifteen years during her childhood, Amanda is oblivious to the fact that she cannot read or write. Completely reassured by Yolanda’s enthusiasm to serve, she decides to go on a weeklong luxury cruise with her husband, entrusting her with the care of her medically compromised infant with complex written instructions.

On a surface level, it could be said that Yolanda is framed as ignorant for her illiteracy. Yet one quickly realizes that the infuriating nature of her character is based on a deeper kind of ignorance, one not based on her lack of education but the choices she makes throughout the film to hide this aspect of herself. While working for Amanda, she cares more for her ego and keeping her job than the life of the child, pretending to understand instructions and withholding critical information from everyone around her while the sick infant is in her care.

Yolanda’s husband Juan does not prove to be any better. While he is literate, this virtue is counteracted by his alcoholism and predilection for laziness. When things inevitably go wrong while the baby is in Yolanda’s care, he helps things devolve from bad to worse. This culmination of ignorance from all sides of the story leads to an avalanche of catastrophic consequences, in which the innocent are not spared.

This is the sort of film that can give you high blood pressure. With its convincing performances and culminating-disaster-plotline, it builds a negative sort of investment; the more it progresses, the more you want to yell at the screen and strangle its characters. As a whole, Niebla de Culpa can be taken as a cautionary tale exploring the facets of ignorance, guilt, and moral accountability across Mexico’s social stratum. Through the scope of black humor, a tinge of farce and a helping of the surreal, it takes on an almost fable like quality, the characters of which demanding judgement from those bearing witness to their infuriating blunders.

-P.F.