‘Sujo’ Review: A Darkly Lyrical Portrait of the Systems That Force Mexican Men Into the Drug Wars

For the larger part of the last two decades, Mexican cinema has been over saturated with hard-to-stomach chronicles of the monstrous drug violence ravaging the country, but no one is approaching such darkness with the layered sensibility and aesthetic poetry of directors Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Proven by their soul-shattering and award-winning previous collaboration, “Identifying Features” (which Valadez directed and Rondero co-wrote), they see the ongoing crisis not for its potential for spectacle or tactless shock value, but for the unspeakable human tragedy that it is.

While “Identifying Features” followed a mother searching for her son, a migrant victim of the horrors, their slightly more hopeful latest, “Sujo,” flips the focus to trace how young men from small, impoverished towns are trapped by the inescapable cycles of violence and become ruthless perpetrators. Here, Valadez and Rondero, now officially co-writing and co-directing, extend their cinematic empathy even to those society has collectively deemed underserving of any compassion: pariahs from birth who never truly had a chance.

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Rather than pointing and saying, “look at what these soulless killers do to each other and to others,” they are concerned with the more onerous question, which places the blame on the systems and not solely on the individual, “why do they see no other way out of their circumstances?” And whereas Valadez’s debut tapped into the otherworldly, most notably during its final moments where the devil himself touches the frame, in “Sujo” the metaphysical realm communicates with our material plane in a more substantial manner.

Born to a sicario father known as “El Ocho” (Juan Jesús Varela) in a rural area of the state of Michoacán, a hotbed for narco activity, Sujo (Kevin Aguilar as a child) is orphaned at age four. In the aftermath of “El Ocho’s” brutal death at the hands of his former colleagues, the boy’s aunt Nemesia (Yadira Pérez), a single woman living on a hill distanced from others, pleads for his life, which is granted as long as Sujo never visits the town, not even to go to school. The child grows up only with the sons of Nemesia’s friend Rosalia (Karla Garrido), Jeremy and Jai, as companions. The older he gets the more he learns of the blood-soaked legacy he stans on. The car his father left behind, a keepsake of his crimes, serves as a palpable reminder.

Contrary to how other filmmakers might tackle the daunting material, there are no gritty visuals in sight. Physical violence is kept off screen, though we feel it lurking at all times like an impending, inevitable omen. Instead, we feast our eyes on cinematographer Ximena Amann’s breathtaking shots where both people and nature appear as if delicately caressed by the softness sunlight, somewhere between naturalism and a painstaking arrangement to evoke an ethereal sensation. Portraying them in this light, literally, returns a certain dignity to communities so deeply maligned. Ghosts return to pass on messages. They come, for the most part, in their own bodies and while the sun is out. Amann films then through overgrown foliage, which separates those forever gone and the ones still here struggling.

These supernatural presences tie into Nemesia’s belief in a primordial state from which we all emerged, before there was conflict, when we were all faultless creatures. She tells Sujo that his father has returned to that place, back to the animals. Valadez and Rondero laced their social realist endeavors with these pointed transcendental aspects, so organically  interwoven into the essence of the narrative, there’s no chance for them to seem esoteric.

When Nemesia can no longer keep him locked away, adolescent Sujo (also Juan Jesús Varela) is lured into his father’s dealings. By now Jeremy has already entered the drug business and Jai is eager to follow suit. Sujo goes along, but there’s a marked distinction between how his friends, almost brothers, behave and his skeptical demeanor, aware of the pain his father caused. In isolating him from other boys and men, the unaffectionate Nemesia may have saved a part of his innocence from being corroded with the toxic masculine bravado that most of them perform to mask their fear. In truth, there are cannon fodder, numbered with tattoos on their chest that further strip them of their humanity. But there are few options for those born into poverty in an environment ridden with sorrow. The cartels offer them a brief moment of false empowerment in exchange for their souls.

Names carry a symbolic burden; the directors make clear. Jai (Alexis Varela, as a teen) bears the moniker that has run through the male side of his bloodline since his great-grandfather. The English-language name Jeremy (Jairo Hernandez) was given to the eldest sibling since he was born as the family planned to migrate to the U.S. For Sujo, whose real name is Josue like his dad, the nick mane is often a subject of curiosity. It came from an indomitable horse the color of night “El Ocho” met as kid. That he has never gone by his real name may have broken him away from that lineage. This type of thoughtful details distinguishes Valadez and Rondero’s writing.

For its third act, the narrative lands in the country’s capital, a place where danger exists but not as bluntly as elsewhere. For those in Mexico City’s educated upper social classes the conflict and those involved seem far removed under the “out of sight, out of mind” adage.

Sujo has left his hometown and makes a humble living unloading sacks of  produce. He harbored a desire to attend school since childhood but has no proof of his education since his aunt homeschooled him. Still, meeting Susan (Sandra Lorenzano), an Argentine literature professor at Mexico’s UNAM, could set him on a new direction. No doubt, the women around Sujo have always been the beacons of his safety, offering him a future.

That Varela played Jesus in “Identifying Features,” a young man who is forced into becoming a murderer when his bus is intercepted on its way to the U.S. border. Thar the directors cast him here as both “El Ocho” and as Sujo reads like an intriguing meta choice. It’s almost as if he gets to experience multiple iterations of a similar life. In each of them, factors outside of their control determine portions of the characters’ arcs, but here the directors find room to imagine what could be, not romanticizing but trying to fend off despair. Now an actor with two features under him, it’s easy to comprehend why Varela’s on-camera restraint in both expression and emotion captivated the directors.

A work of tremendous lyrical potency, even more intricate in meaning and scope than the pair’s earlier stunner, “Sujo” thunderously demonstrates why Valdez and Rondero stand among those soon to be regarded as the new masters of Mexican cinema.

Grade: A

“Sujo” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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