Written by: Hannah Tran | November 9th, 2023
Jezabel (Hernán Jabes Águila, 2023) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Hernán Jabes Águila’s ambitious film Jezabel unfolds against the tumultuous backdrop of 2017 Caracas, where affluent teenagers—Lolo, Cacá, Eli, and Alain—escape the boredom of their existence and the surrounding sociopolitical nightmare through a hedonist lifestyle of sex, drugs, and depraved games. Their world comes crashing down when Eli is mysteriously killed and their teacher is accused, arrested, and later brutally murdered behind bars. 16 years later, Alain begins a new romance with a curious journalist, triggering ghosts from his past to resurface as he wrestles with the memory of his past self.
The film itself is often as shocking as its premise suggests, and it is captivating to see how far it plunges into its transgressive waters. However, some scenes that demonstrate this air of debauchery tend to extend beyond necessity and sidetrack the main story. The sex scenes, especially, while not necessarily gratuitous, can feel meandering. Yet the darkest aspects of the violence and sex still leave a powerful imprint on the film. In particular, a scene at a summer camp and another in which a character falls through a glass table lend an unforgettably unsettling aura that lingers over the film.
The imagery often matches the intensity of the story. The cinematography captures the stunning beauty of Caracas and the sense of isolation within it. Both the interior and exterior settings are framed through detachment and insulation from the larger world. The editing also does an excellent job of constructing the feeling of memories and building the perspective of an unreliable narrator through its stylish cutting between past and future. However, the cinematography doesn’t always feel consistent in these latter segments, and sometimes the needless stylization and less thoughtful blocking cheapens the overall look.
Despite its thoroughly engaging premise, it can be frustrating to fully follow the story. Some elements are left unexplained, although this could be excused by the film’s theme of selective memory, and it is fascinating to see how the film connects this idea to the context of Venezuelan culture and history. While it doesn’t always fully land, the attempt to draw parallels between self-serving recollections of one’s life and the way various systems validate and excuse these qualities on a larger scale is interesting.
The final act of the film, however, feels somewhat heavy-handed and loses the mysterious atmosphere of the first half. The more subtle ways that Águila (Rock, Paper, Scissors) builds the teens’ life, such as school being cut short due to violence in the streets or scenes of a family dinner where they eat plain pasta, intelligently demonstrate how normalized the instability of their world is. The more obvious methods of illustrating this, such as with the endless newsreels, are more on the nose.
Jezabel is a striking exploration of how we manipulate others and ourselves. Although occasionally disappointing in its execution, it offers an enthralling premise and intensely tragic moments that will undoubtedly linger in our memories.