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Film Review: “This Is Not Berlin” Is Fascinating and Futile

Written by: Hannah Tran | September 12th, 2019

Film poster: “This Is Not Berlin”

This Is Not Berlin (“Esto no es Berlín”) (Hari Sama) 2 out of 4 stars.

What doesn’t sound interesting about a movie detailing the queer art scene of 1980’s Mexico City? I, for one, was all in. Unfortunately, despite centering itself around extraordinarily interesting subject matter, Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical Sundance entry, This Is Not Berlinlacks the material to stretch over its unnecessary runtime. Although it has potential to have more intricate storylines and relationships within it, it opts to look at its subjects from a distance, watering its plot down to a handful of situations similar enough to string together a story.

This Is Not Berlin gets off to a slow start. Once it trudges past the first fifteen minutes, however, the characters’ descent into the neon bars and smoky back rooms of the transgressive art scene make the narrative flow immersively for minutes at a time. Unfortunately, even these are interrupted by more of the same tedious scenes featuring characters moving slowly about their lives. It may think itself nuanced, but it comes off more just like silence. The club scenes, however, really are as voyeuristically good as they’re meant to be. While conversations overheard in these clubs may prove overly long and assuredly pretentious, the look and feel of these environments fulfill an uncommon grittiness and coolness that equally serve as a mesmerizing introduction to a largely unknown world. The costumes and makeup create the individuals within it and the identity of their scene, later even becoming crucial to their character development. The soundtrack, however, is the real heart of the film here. Although the various art pieces portrayed in the film range from stunning to satirical, the music consistently vocalizes the mentality and intensity of the scene in a uniquely youthful and strikingly anxious way.

Xabiani Ponce de León and Mauro Sanchez Navarro in THIS IS NOT BERLIN ©Samuel Goldwyn Films

This Is Not Berlin’s trouble, moreover, is that it does not seem to know whether it wants to be purely about the culture or the individual. Despite being set up as a character study of a young man falling into the art scene of 1980’s Mexico, the movie itself occasionally loses itself a little too much in that scene. Often, it feels as though it leaves that boy behind, letting the conflicts of his social struggles lose their impact as a result. Amongst the numerous relationships this movie toys with, none of them seem to successfully follow through, either lacking a strong enough beginning or a strong enough end. While it does a good job of setting out the initial social boundaries of the world, the characters see little ramifications for the breakage of these boundaries that directly relate to the larger issues surrounding them. What is left is a distinct feeling of impersonality, leaving these large political and cultural ideas to remain ideas more than anything else.

It isn’t until the end that I realized how much the film left wanting, the last few minutes feeling disconnected from the earlier events in the film and hinting that there almost certainly could have been a better film leading up to them. While This Is Not Berlin is an interesting look into a world so often looked over, this particular foray into Mexico City teen culture fails to be more than that.

In Spanish with English subtitles


Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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