English Title: Mia
Original Title: Mia
Country of Origin: Argentina
Studio: Kairos Films
Director: Javier van de Couter
Screenplay: Javier van de Couter
Cinematographer: Miguel Abal
Art Director: Sebastián Rosés
Editor: Fabio Pallero
Runtime: 98 minutes
Genre: Modern Families
Colour, 35 mm
Ale is a beautiful transgender cartonera who lives on the city’s edge, in a shantytown for the gay and transgender homeless called Aldea Rosa (Pink Village), located near the Ecological Reserve on the banks of the Río de la Plata. Ale gathers refuse and cardboard on the Buenos Aires streets to make a living. One night she sees ten-year-old Julia being forced back inside her house by the maid and her father, Manuel. The maid quits, and in frustration, the father throws a mysterious cardboard box into the trash. Ale takes the box containing the personal effects of Mia, Julia’s mother. She tries to return it, only to be insulted by Manuel. However, she slowly befriends Julia. Although Manuel is prone to drunken rages, he realizes that he and Julia need Ale, who resembles Mia. After establishing a makeshift family, Ale experiences disappointment as Julia moves away, and additional stress when she returns to find her shantytown destroyed in a police raid. Through all the sadness, however, Ale’s eternal spirit gives her resiliency.
The directorial debut of actor Javier Van de Couter, Mia is perhaps the most sensitive depiction of two of Argentina’s most heavily abused communities: the cartoneros, or the homeless who wander nocturnal Buenos Aires scavenging the detritus of the daytime city for discarded objects, cardboard and paper to resell as recycling, and the transgender community. Van de Couter’s direction of Sosa Villada, who plays Ale, exemplifies his sensitivity to transgender issues. She shows an exquisite range of emotion, from a sunny happiness regardless of her condition, to trepidation, to a motherly attitude. Ale clearly knows her place in the world, as much as she would like to change it. The film begins with her staring into a restaurant, watching a birthday celebration. She smiles at the scene, the window both a way to look in from the dark streets and a mirror to use to fix her hair, as if to maintain a beauty that could take her away from her circumstances. At the same time, the scene emphasises her transgender nature, her large hands combing through her tresses.
Argentina’s more invisible social boundaries are also made apparent in the film. Finding Julia home alone, having injured herself trying to cook pancakes, Ale remains afraid to cross the house’s threshold; she has Julia bring her the material she needs to help her. As Julia, the young Lanata gives a performance that veers from rage-filled drama to nuanced sadness. She is especially strong in her role as caretaker of her alcoholic father, whom she often finds either asleep on the sofa or awake and violent. Lanata does well as the emotionally fraught daughter of a mother who committed suicide. She casually mentions this to Ale, a fact her father has fooled himself into believing she did not know. That Julia is aware of Ale’s transgender status is also skilfully revealed under Van de Couter’s tender direction. Julia at one point asks if Ale is short for Alejandra when they first meet, aware of her female identity. But later she asks, ‘why do you speak like a woman?’, suggesting she knows Ale was born a man.
As Manuel, De la Serna is the film’s headliner in a role that throws him into drunken, homophobic rages with Ale and into sensitive moments with his daughter. His expression when he sees Ale wearing Mia’s dress is one of both longing and confusion, and a highlight in the film. Still, Manuel’s switch from angry to understanding seems to happen too quickly, along with his sudden ability to control his drinking. At the same time, De la Serna masterfully shows how confusing the situation is for him. At one point, he attacks Ale for playing with his daughter, and then begins to understand that she is valuable under the circumstances.
A subplot in Mia involves the slum residents divided between fighting for housing from the city or remaining as a shantytown. This pits Ale against many who prefer the latter option. A group of young men also come to make a documentary, a forced sequence that seems designed to reveal facts about their lives through the few questions they answer, but that could have been explained in other ways – especially since the young men try to help the residents throughout the film. That said, Mia’s overall gimmick – that a cartonera would want to return a personal object she found to a family – is a beautiful, believable narrative device.
Mia ends with a violent scene in which Ale comes home from her final visit with Julia and Manuel to find police beating the Aldea Rosa residents and driving a bulldozer through their homes. While this scene is based on the 1998 destruction of the gay shantytown ordered by a federal judge, as the film explains at the end, slum life here is romanticised. Yet Van de Couter tries to portray the idea that such places, scattered throughout Buenos Aires, as well as the people who live in them, are full of humanity, nuance and a deep desire for a better life that society feels they do not deserve. It is a striking point, well told.
Author of this review: Michael Luongo