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Maryland Film Festival Review: “Sujo”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 21st, 2024

Sujo (Astrid Rondero/Fernanda Valadez, 2024) 4 out of 5 stars

It’s not easy to escape the tyranny of tribal loyalties. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” laments Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III. His fate—or that of his family—is pretty much sealed by previous misdeeds. There’s no going back to an age of innocence. But sometimes, maybe, if one is lucky and really wishes for change, it can happen, though the going is rough. This is the premise of Sujo, a new Mexican film from directors Astrid Rondero (The Darkest Days of Us) and Fernanda Valadez (Identifying Features).

Divided into four parts that walk the viewer through the stages of its character’s life, the film follows young Sujo from his origins as the son of a cartel “sicario” (hitman) to his teenage years, working for said cartel, and then to his eventual escape to Mexico City. There, he hopes to break free from the chains of the past and study literature. Thanks to the efforts of strong-willed women, two in particular, he just might make it.

The first to take an interest is his aunt, Nemesia (Yadira Pérez, Mujeres del Alba), who refuses to let Josue, the boy’s father, off the hook for his violent lifestyle. When that man (the 8th of his line, and presumably not the first to go down this path) meets a tragic end, reaping what he has long sowed, she takes Sujo (played by Kevin Aguilar at this stage of his life) to live with her on an isolated mountainside. There, she hopes to protect him from those who would kill him (hoping to avoid a future retribution from the adult Sujo).

l-r: Kevin Aguilar and Juan Jesús Varela in SUJO ©Alpha Violet

He grows up away from the worst elements in town, though in the company of Jeremy and Jai, the sons of Nemesia’s friend (and, possibly, lover), Rosalia (Karla Garrido, Ojos que no ven). The close ties between the boys eventually lead Sujo, as a teen (now played by Juan Jesús Varela, who also played Josue the 8th) back to the cartel, doing initially small jobs. But larger gigs are forthcoming, as is danger.

One thing leads to another, and it is soon time to go, Nemesia giving him bus fare to the capital where, after establishing himself through menial jobs, Sujo drifts towards the university, auditing a class taught by Susan (writer Sandra Lorenzano). She takes an interest in helping this uncut gem of a student figure out his way. Unfortunately, the past is not quite done with him. The thrill of the movie comes from the uncertainty of the final outcome. We should take nothing for granted.

Kevin Aguilar in SUJO ©Alpha Violet

The directors combine cinematic lyricism—adding more than a dose of magical realism—with the harsh truths of poverty and exploitation. Cinematographer Ximena Amann (Ni tuyo, Ni mía) delivers images of power and beauty, and the editing team (comprised of the directors plus Susan Korda, who has worked on their previous features) creates subtle shades of meaning through elliptical cuts through time and space. There’s a joy to the mystery of how certain pieces fit together.

This includes a linked prologue and epilogue that elevate the deceptive simplicity of the tale to something deeper. And even if the central riddle remains only partially solved, that only means it is up to us to imagine what comes next. Sujo is a feast for the eyes and the brain.

[Sujo premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. I had the pleasure of watching at the 2024 Maryland Film Festival.]


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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