In 2009, two twin-brother Mini-Estrellas — Mexican wrestlers, or luchadores, who fight in a special division for little people — were found dead in a hotel room in Mexico City. A pair of aging prostitutes had planned to rob and drug the twins, sneaking eyedrops into their drinks. But they underestimated the power of the drops with respect to the brothers’ size; instead of knocking them out, the drops killed them. One English tabloid blared: “Midget wrestlers dead after hooker romp.”
This true-crime story is the inspiration for veteran Mexican director Arturo Ripstein’s Bleak Street (or La Calle de la Amargura), written by his wife and longtime collaborator, Paz Alicia Garcíadiego. Set and shot in Mexico City, Bleak Street continues Ripstein’s career-long obsession with downtrodden and marginalized characters who struggle to pull themselves out of the muck of their, well, rather bleak lives. Like his onetime mentor Luis Buñuel, Ripstein favors sparse, naturalistic settings populated by pathetic-yet-zany characters and eschews anything that might be considered traditionally beautiful. Instead, he unearths beauty in the mire of his characters’ social conditions and in their dedication to each other.
Shot in luscious black-and-white, Bleak Street is confined, like its characters, to the back alleys of Mexico City. Cinematographer Alejandro Cantú heightens the grubby locale with brightly illuminated spaces set against shadowy backgrounds. There’s no background music, no wide establishing shots of the country’s capital — only narrow passageways where ragged hookers loiter in front of rolling steel garage doors and shadowy staircases lead up to shabby apartments. To Ripstein’s characters, this maze of grimy streets is the whole world.
Ripstein follows his doomed luchadores (Juan Francisco Longoria and Guillermo López) from a prostitute’s bed to their parents’ bed. They kneel before their mother as she blesses them in preparation for an upcoming fight. Their masks never once come off, and through fighting and fucking they stick together. Their mother remarks, “Born the same day, the same blood, the same struggle.”
The twins’ fate is intertwined with that of the two middle-aged prostitutes, Adela (Patricia Reyes Spíndola) and Dora (Nora Velázquez), who scheme to drug the brothers and steal their earnings during a joint tryst. Adela and Dora are career hookers; they talk about “the trade” and their “labor.” When Dora catches her husband — dressed in a bra and short skirt — fooling around with a man, she insists she’s upset mainly because he was wearing her “work clothes.”
Ripstein finds dark humor in his characters’ diminished expectations, which sag so low they’re subterranean. When Adela’s madam informs her that a younger woman has taken her corner, Adela protests, “Doesn’t experience count?” (“Truth be told,” the madam replies, “no.”)
Adela and Dora don’t wish to transcend their status — they seem to regard their vocation as destiny. Like the twins, they appear to be caught up in a powerful current of fate, a sense that struggle is not about elevating oneself to a higher plane of existence. That’s the American version of struggle, an orgasmic reverie of more and better. Here, to struggle is simply to live another day on Bleak Street.
Directed by Arturo Ripstein
Opens January 20, Film Forum