Berlin 2022 ‘Robe of Gems’ Review: Unfocused, Yet Unique Cartel Drama

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Mexican director Natalia López Gallardo presents an interesting, yet slightly unfocused narrative about women, cartels and privilege in her directorial debut.

Directed by: Natalia López Gallardo
Year: 2022
Country: Mexico, Argentina, USA
Length: 118 minutes

Natalia López Gallardo has been delivering fantastic work, editing films by celebrated Latin American directors Amat Escalante, Lisandro Alonso and Carlos Reygadas for the past fifteen years. This year, she’s presenting her directorial debut Robe of Gems at the Berlinale film festival, as part of the official competition. A film that’s completely her own, in terms of style and vision.

Robe of gems takes a look at the current Mexican drug war from three very different female perspectives, as all three characters are in some way connected to the cartel and each other.

First there’s Mari (Antonia Olivares), a housemaid whose sister is missing. The disappearance of her sister has forced her to work with the cartel, alongside Adán (Daniel García), the son of a local policewoman.

Roberta (Aida Roa), a policewoman, has been working on the case. At first unaware of either her son’s activities in the cartel and Mari’s involvement, she slowly starts discovering the truth and will silently try to help Mari and her son from getting more caught up in the web they’re in.

Lastly, the film follows Isabel (Nailea Norvind), a relatively wealthy, white woman from the city who has just taken possession of her mother’s villa in the countryside. Mari has worked for Isabel’s family for a long time and upon reconnecting with her old maid, Isabel becomes intrigued with her missing sister. Having only been told by Mari that her sister is a taxi driver, Isabel sets out to discover the truth. No matter how much Mari and others warn Isabel about the situation and tell her that she doesn’t know how things work here, Isabel stays dedicated to discover, to the point where she abandons her own children.

Though many Mexican films have already been made cartels (notable examples being Mexico’s past two Oscar submissions ‘I’m No Longer Here’ and ‘Prayers For the Stolen’), López Gallardo still manages to add an interesting element to the familiar subject and the narrative we’ve seen quite a few times times before: privilege. By contrasting the story of a brown-skinned woman who is forced to work for a cartel with that of the white, privileged woman she works for, the director opens a conversation about the way the suffering of marginalized people is perceived by the privileged. Isabel seems to almost find her quest entertaining at times, having a smirk on her face as she explores the Mexican countryside. She’s fully disconnected from her surroundings. In one sequence, Mari catches her daughter using mushrooms and laughs it off, with her daughter reminding her she used to refer to them as ‘spirit guides’. We’re presented the story of a woman who has been so isolated in her own bubble that she doesn’t know the environment she’s in.

However, while Robe of Gems’ narrative is interesting and engaging, the film could have benefited from having a stronger central focus. Aside from the three main characters, there are several other characters with their own arcs, that have several scenes devoted to them. Even though the stories of the three women regularly intersect, it still feels as if we’re presented many different kinds of narratives within the film. The more different narratives presented, the less focus on individual narratives. This causes all individual stories and characters to not be as strong and detailed as they could have been.

The true star of highlight of the film has to be Antonia Olivares’ debut performance as Mari, the maid. Olivares shines as her stoic character requires her to express most of her emotions through facial expressions, rather than dialogue. The actress’ performance feels real, organic and has a lasting impression. More than any other aspect, it’s Olivares’ performance that makes the audience feel for this character and her narrative.

Robe of Gems premiered at the 2022 Berlinale film festival as part of the official competition, where it competes for the Golden Bear.

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