Ana is a 9-year-old girl dealing with her young brother’s recent death. Her mother is also in the throes of intense grief and has become almost entirely inaccessible to Ana.
To help heal her mother, Ana prays to God to help ease the pain, but to no avail. Her mother only goes deeper into her pain, causing deeper rifts in the family. Feeling desperate and alone, Ana decides to court divine intervention in her own way, to break through the impasse of grief that has frozen the family emotionally.
Written and directed by Cris Gris, this dramatic short uses a sensitive and economical naturalism to capture both a young girl’s attempt to process an unthinkable loss and the atmosphere of religious belief and faith that surrounds the family.
Considerable delicacy is used in picking just the right image to encapsulate Ana’s increasing isolation. The young girl’s milieu is both lively with color and heavy with shadow, captured with camerawork that is beautifully attuned to Ana’s inner world and emotions. Though she says very little, the audience always knows her thoughts and feelings, thanks to this intuitive camera and editing.
The camera also pays documentary-like attention to the small details of Ana’s Mexican town, and to how spiritual belief and religious piety are imbued into the fabric of this community. All kinds of rituals and spiritual interventions are available at any turn in Ana’s world, and faith in God and saints are a palpable part of everyone’s lives. These are woven naturally into the film through the narrative action, as well as through a richly layered sound and musical score.
Ana may be a child, but the emotions of death, afterlife and loss are just as huge and paralyzing for her as they are for her mother. And yet she’s unable to be seen or heard, perhaps because she is so young. Young actress Melissa Pena Rodriguez offers a restrained yet evocative performance, as a young girl seeking meaning, comfort and understanding but unable to find it anywhere. In the vacuum of any guidance, and emotionally left to her own devices, she asks God to intercede with a show of faith that may only lead to more calamity.
Selected for the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, “San Miguel” is a compelling and ultimately heart-wrenching portrait of how we make sense of devastating sorrow. It’s also an intimate, richly specific immersion into the director’s hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, where the film was shot. Amidst these ambitious themes, Ana’s intimate story stands out for its exquisite sensitivity to the inner life of children, and also how easily the world overlooks this. And in its final, devastating moments, it also makes clear the costs of this short-sightedness, when we can’t see or address the pain standing right in front of us, hoping to be heard.