Mexican director Mariana Chenillo’s second feature, Paraíso (Paradise), might seem like a timely film, given the recent news that Mexico has overtaken the US’s number one spot as the country with the largest obesity rate. But rather than going Morgan Spurlock and focusing on the obvious corporate evils that contribute to a serious health concern, Chenillo’s fictional tale follows Carmen and Alfredo, a happy young plus-sized couple. It shows us that the magical makeover premise of slimming down as a pathway to self-fulfillment is a slick bit of bunko.
Instigating their desire to change is Alfredo’s job transfer from the homey, plus-sized, and safe “paraíso” of the Satélite surburbs in Mexico to the slicker, slimmer environs of Mexico City, el D.F. Yet the film’s visual inventiveness and unique take on the before/after formula make this “Biggest Loser” story a big winner.
Here are seven reasons why Paraiso is winning…
1. Because normcore never looked so good.
Carmen and Alfredo like to do their dressing matchy-matchy, which is fab when they are rocking the same cursi patterns — checks, stripes, & patchwork bold colors — and maybe a little less-than when they don the exact same Gap logo hoodies. Normcore all the way for the happy couple, but in a completely unironic, suburban fashion way. But once they hit the big city, the DF city slicker outfit of blacks and grays, sleek and streamlined, starts to look less chic and more, well, drab and conventional — its own kind of unironic urban normcore. The joy expressed in Carmen and Alfredo’s slightly questionable clothing choices starts to feel fresh, fun, creative, and individualistic.
2. Because foodies and food porn addicts are put on notice (nicely).
Ever savor a good taco, a tasty portion of dumplings, hell even a donut (or cronut), and be annoyed as hell that you suddenly must battle a block-long line of foodies clamoring to post their lastest gastronomic conquest to Instagram when you’re just trying to eat? Though food obviously plays a major role in Paradise, it isn’t overly fetishized or demonized, it just is what it is: at times a spot-on, satisfying way to fill your most basic needs; at others something we try to use, ineffectively, to satisfy non-hunger urges; and occasionally its a delectable, expressive art. And yet this straight up approach makes me want to jump up and down: finally, a food friendly, yet foodie-free, zone!!! Plus, the lack of hyper-stylized, drool-worthy food porn shots is sure appreciated when you are at that 8pm stomach-growling hour of a screening and haven’t yet managed to catch a bite.
3. Because the lure of a Spanish accent is still tough to resist.
Ah, maybe Stockholm Syndrome (wherein you start to look up to and bond with your captor) should be called Sevilla Syndrome for us former colonies? Carmen, bored and frustrated by the fake camaraderie of her weight watching group, ultimately finds fulfillment and companionship in a gastronomic cooking group that seems to be entirely composed of light-haired ladies from Spain. Carmen bonds with funny and gorgeous Pili, the youngest member of the group, as we all fall for those continental gourmet charmers who call their papas patatas. Ni modo, we love them.
4. Because the film is a fable minus the annoying Aesopian moralizing.
A fable in as much as the characters, other than Carmen, are somewhat simplified, as are some of the plot points and wrap-ups. Still, the film manages to create a convincing, candy-colored alternate universe where “do what you love” and “love who you love” push aside “love the skin you’re in,” “just do it,” and other corporate copy slogans. Human = not perfect, and that’s a beautiful, albeit at times painful, thing. But it sure helps to have a fable-like story to cushion those falls.
5. Because the gags aren’t up to “the funny fat people.”
When early on in the film, Carmen appears at a fancy party dressed in an apple green peplum dress, with a pouffy flourish at the waist, your inclination is to giggle at how she looks like a plump, ripe piece of fruit. But there’s no need for Chenillo to push this toward a big gag, and soon enough, you are gently chastened by the mean girls at the party who gossip about Carmen and Alfredo’s appearance, comparing the couple to figures from a Botero painting (Google, if you need to, the Colombian painter, like Carmen did!). The film doesn’t preach at you but also doesn’t pander, like most American films do (hello, Tammy!), to easy gags at the expense of the non-skinny. You begin to realize that Carmen induces smiles because she’s often cute and charming, though sometimes crabby, confused, and uneasy in her own skin, like virtually all of us.
6. Because the director, costume designer, cinematographer and art director were all fused together in a cosmic, candy-colored mind meld when they made this movie.
Like being in a Sanrio store on acid, Paradise is chock-full of Hello Kitty color schemes of pink and green, whether in Carmen and Alfredo’s kitchen, or throughout their funky Satélite and DF neighborhoods, or even more so, on their patterned clothes. Their candy-striped shirts and swiss-dotted duds make for a freewheeling feeling of kids gone wild in candy stores, and the hot pink and lime green color schemes upped the groove quotient even more. Their dress is matched in décor and framing by the metal stripes of security bars and stair banisters, and wide shots of pink escalators and green stairwells emphasize the changes the couple must negotiate as they move and make changes physically and psychologically in their lives. As times get tougher for them, the color scheme and lighting darken and become more shadowy — pink turns to crimson, green gets deeper, and the pleasing flush of rosy cheeks turns to the ruddy nose and red eyes of tearful faces. Colors and shapes move the main action on the screen like in an avant-garde abstract film, minus the tedium!
7. Because supporting independent voices, and that includes female directors (go girls!), feels good and even kinda fab when you have Gael and Diego on your side.
Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna’s production company, Canana, which they run along together with producer Pablo Cruz, has an impressive track record of supporting unique visions and voices in Latin American cinema, and Paradise is no exception.
Paraíso opens in select AMC theaters in the Los Angeles area on February 13, 2015. Click here for tickets and showtimes.