“I don’t know what to expect out of life,” a philosophical older queen declares to the 17-year-old main protagonist of Julián Hernández’s A Thousand Clouds of Peace.
He then asks, “Do you?” making it clear the question is more than just rhetorical, if hopeless. Most of the questions put to young Gerardo throughout the film remain unanswered.
A short scene, an aside, really; but a question that the film itself asks repeatedly, in cinematic ways, through a consistent use of selective focus and long tracking shots and dollies, and through narrative strategies, elliptical story-telling and editing that reveals key-character details long after the characters were introduced, or answers only provisionally what plotlines the film initiates.
The answers seem to be: Expect to be surprised, to be disappointed. Expect not to see the present very clearly, or to understand the motivations of those you love, but especially your own. More than anything, though, expect your own self-pity to be the reason why you can’t connect with anyone, except for the one, solitary trick you’ve obsessed about for weeks.
Your own tolerance for self-pity, in large part, might determine whether or not you sympathize with Gerardo, a stubbornly romantic, young gay Mexican guy obsessed with a lover named Bruno who loves him, too, maybe, but can’t seem to do the minimum required to maintain a relationship: Show up for sex.
Here is Geraldo, waiting and waiting on Bruno at their agreed-upon spot. Somehow director Hernandez makes resonant even this non-descript overpass, spanning an average Mexico-City highway The film presents this as one long tracking shot that covers several days, with Gerardo appearing in different clothes, different positions, different spots, all with his looking off camera-left, and holding the same LP he’d purchased earlier in the week to play for his lover.
The purchase of the LP itself is a small, delicate wonder, as Gerardo tries to sing the tune he remembers hearing at the restaurant during his and Bruno’s first date, an old tune which might mean more to me if I knew what it was or its historical or cultural context. Gerardo’s earnestness fails to charm the woman running the used record shop — really just a bunch of crates set up on the sidewalk — and she pretends to know which song he’s talking about. It’s only when the proprietor herself comes, listens and laughs to Gerardo’s halting rendition that they find the record he’s looking for; and then the woman sings the song, out there on the street. They laugh and enjoy the sentimentality together.
Hernández periodically introduces peripheral female characters and allows the film to veer off into their perspectives, featuring voice-overs and a short, biographical sequence. In each case, the woman’s knowing fatalism empathizes with Gerardo’s ersatz emotional tragedies, both humoring him and criticizing him. Melodrama does that, if you understand it right.
The director’s humor and the cinematographer’s endless invention more than mitigates the self-pity, however – it gives it context, weight, mystery even: An aria plays entirely over a gay-bashing scene, deftly editing together a series of beautifully composed stills and cutting away as someone in the frame moves.
At times, this film reminded me of the Gus Van Sant of My Own Private Idaho and Mala Noche, with its restless experimentation, and its optimism in believing that its audiences would find pathos, unrequited desire, and yes, pretension as funny and as beautiful as he does.
The film’s final two sequences mystified me a bit. The second-to-last scene shows a religious conversion of some sort, on that same godsdamn overpass; then a collapse. The coda, perhaps better understood as a requiem, takes place, more than likely or maybe not, entirely in the ecstatically-energized mind of Gerardo: The bodies and, metaphorically, the souls of the two lovers unite via a series of lovely, erotic dissolves. I couldn’t understand the mumbled Spanish, except for, “Lover, I have waited for you for so long,” and the subtitles seemed a bit confused.
Still, I didn’t capture any screenshots; each poetic shot captured me.