Mexican Director Gabriel Mariño On Creating a Melancholy Drama About a Soul That Changes Bodies Every Few Months

'Ayer maravilla fui' still courtesy of Los Cabos International Film Festival

Gabriel Mariño’s latest film, Ayer maravilla fui (Yesterday Wonder I Was) borrows its title from a 1621 poem (“Aprended, Flores, en mí”) by Luis de Góngora. It encourages viewers to finish the sentence: “ayer maravilla fui, y hoy sombra mía aun no soy.” (I was a wonder yesterday but I’m not yet my own shadow today.) The poetic air of the title captures what makes Mariño’s black-and-white story about a being who randomly wakes up in bodies of different people living in Mexico City so dreamy. Despite its sci-fi-sounding conceit, its visuals suggest more Bresson and Cassavetes than Ridley Scott. With a kind of cinema verité style, we follow this being first as “Emilio,” an older man played by Rubén Cristiany, later as “Ana,” a young woman (Sonia Franco) and later still as “Pedro,” a young man (Hoze Meléndez) as they pine away for a friendly hair dresser (Siouzana Melikian) who begins to forge a strong connection with these strangers who keep showing up to get their hair cut.

Clearly interested in philosophical questions about desire, memory, and love, Ayer maravilla fui has emerged as a true festival darling. Just this past weekend, the film won two awards at Los Cabos International Film Festival: the Cinemex – México Primero Award chosen by the festival’s jury, and the FIPRESCI – México Primero Award, which is given out by a group of international film critics. And that’s after having picked up two awards just a few weeks back at the Morelia International Film Festival, one for Best First or Second Mexican Feature and the other for Franco’s alluring take on “Anna.”

Following a packed screening for the film at Los Cabos, Mariño and his producer Gabriela Gavica joined actors Franco and Meléndez as they held a lively Q&A where they fielded warm comments from the audience who were thrilled to see this unusual (dare one say, queer?) story on screen told in such a down-to-earth manner. Tackling questions about everything from the sex scene between Franco and Melikian and the film’s organic development (they shot it without a script!), the filmmakers shed some light on what to make of what’s become a film to keep an eye out for on the festival circuit—and hopefully beyond! Take a look at some highlights from the Q&A below.

On the Film’s Many Influences

Gabriel: Well, this is my second film. In my first film I already had this sort of style. I was very much thinking of a filmmaker called Tsai Ming-liang. He’s always using still shots and I really enjoyed playing around with fidgeting with the frame and composing it, and try to create a kind of editing within the frame: it’s the characters who move. But afterwards, while I really enjoy that and skirting that style, I freed myself.

My first film wasn’t dedicated to anyone but it did have a quote from John Cassavetes. This one I wanted to dedicate it to him as a gift, as a sign of my own admiration for a filmmaker that really helps me and guides me. I turn to him every time I have existential doubts about cinema. He inspires me with his honesty.

On the Choice of Black-and-White Cinematography

Mariño: First of all, the choice to work in black and white was there from the beginning. I felt that it adds to the vibe of the film, because it has one foot in the real world—the here and the now—it’s a kind of visual convention that we know refers to our reality but it also has a foot in memory, in a world of melancholy and remembrance. It was perfect. Because the concept of the film hopes to straddle those two worlds, Mexico City in 2017 but also evoking a city of lost memories.

‘Ayer maravilla fui’ still courtesy of Los Cabos International Film Festival
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On Shooting a Lesbian Sex Scene

Sonia: I had been naked in front of the camera a number of times before this, mostly in short films. It was all very comfortable because Gabriel and Ivan, the entire team, created a comfortable environment where the two of us could work on this scene. I really didn’t have a problem with it beforehand. But afterwards! That’s when I was in shock, almost, like “What did I do?” Actually I asked Gabriel to see if I could take a look at the scene, to see if I could see the dailies. He refused. He asked me to trust him and that it had all come out exactly how we needed it and that in the end it was a matter of trusting that he’d gotten what he needed. So I did and it’s been so gratifying to see what came out of it.

Gabriela: I’d like to add a bit to that, because there is always a bit of a curiosity on the part of audiences when it comes to these things, like how we arrived and worked on that scene. I think the production itself—we had a very small crew, sometimes there were only 5 of us on set—allowed for the environment to feel very intimate and to nurture this feeling of safety and comfort. It managed to make the actors very much at ease regardless of the scene they were playing. You know, for example, Rubén had a scene where he wakes up and he was just wearing a pair of briefs. The fact that we were such a contained and small crew helped make those kinds of scenes happen.

On Developing a Character That’s Not Quite Human

“We worked on imagining this presence that inhabits the city and knows it very well because it’s lived in it for centuries.”

Sonia: In my case, we talked about the city. About the memories we had of the different colonias we grew up in [in Mexico City]. We worked on imagining this presence that inhabits the city and knows it very well because it’s lived in it for centuries—that’s what I dreamed up for it. Like, a presence that’s scoured the entire city and knows it by heart. It’s gone and found things that are inaccessible to me. What helped me was to think of it as this imprint of the city that carried the melancholy of a city that no longer exists, of a Distrito Federal we’ll never get to experience again but which we all saw at one point.

Hoze: I came on board rather late. There was already a sense of how Rubén and Sonia were working. So I worked with Gabriel and rather than look at what my peers were doing we focused on keeping a kind of neutrality to the character. A genderless neutrality, for it to not be too masculine nor too feminine, because this being truly has no gender. Gabriel had a very clear vision for what he wanted and that came through in the situations he put us in. The work the three of us did on this character was made easy by merely focusing on the settings and situations we were asked to play on any given scene.

On Working Without a Script

“Can a human being fall in love with the essence of a person and not their physical body?”

Gabriela: The one thing I would add is that the film had no script. So here again the small crew and the agile production schedule allowed us to build the film on set, where Gabriel was able to explore with and alongside his actors. We began with just a 15-page brief where you had the main question the film would address: can a human being fall in love with the essence of a person and not their physical body? From there, Gabriel took on the work on collaborating with his actors and flesh out the story as we shot the film.

Gabriel: You know, some of my professors at film school would’ve told me that that was an insane thing to do, that there is no film without a script. But others would have very much encouraged me to go for it.

The Q&A took place in Spanish and has been translated by the author for Remezcla.