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Director Hari Sama’s “This is not Berlin” opens with a quote from Marcel Proust, because if you’re going to make a memory movie you might as well go all the way. Inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences growing up in a Mexico City suburb, the picture then bursts out of the gate with an exuberant eruption of adolescent rebellion set to Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law.” (From Proust to Priest!) Sneaking cigarettes and dirty magazines, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) and his pal Gera (José Antonio Toledano) are in many ways your typical teenage misfits. But lately, they’ve been growing a bit bored with heavy metal and hippie music, not to mention the routine neighborhood rumbles where everybody fights more out of obligation than actual anger. These boys are itching for something new.
Carlos is a bit of a mechanical prodigy and he’s got it bad for Gera’s gorgeous older sister Rita (Ximena Romo), a senior who gets in trouble for reading Patti Smith poems in her English class and at night fronts a New Wave band — the marvelously named Manifesto. One night, Carlos manages to fix her boyfriend’s busted synthesizer, so he and Gera are allowed to tag along with her to a gig at an illegal, underground nightclub called Aztec. When the kids ask if it’s a gay bar, Rita replies “it’s an everything bar.”
Photographed as a sleazy, forbidden paradise, the Aztec is a ramshackle den of iniquity packed with artists, screw-ups and wannabe revolutionaries. It’s 1986 and the rest of Mexico is readying to host the World Cup, recovering from a catastrophic earthquake and doubling down on the nationalistic machismo of fútbol mania. But in the club, the leather-clad punks and queers are doing poppers at body-painting parties and talking about how their art can change the world. It’s everything Carlos and Gera didn’t know they always wanted to be a part of, and after that first night at the Aztec all they can talk about is how they’re going to get back in there again.
This is a bit easier for Carlos, who with his flowing mane and architecturally astonishing cheekbones already looks like a male model, and as such catches the eye of the club’s owner, a restless performance artist named Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro). It isn’t long before Carlos is wearing an earring and eyeliner to school only to find his desk chair painted pink by his howling, homophobic classmates. Interestingly, Carlos isn’t really even that into guys, he just goes along with whatever because he wants to be part of the scene. The desires of the squat, chest-beating, classically overcompensating Gera are an entirely different story altogether.
“This is not Berlin” takes its (terrible) title from an argument among the Aztec’s artists, one that inspires Nico to take his troupe to the streets with confrontational performance pieces in public places calling attention to the AIDS epidemic. Sama shoots this all as a swirl of sensation, with lots of dreamy, sexed-up montages and druggy interludes. The chronology isn’t always entirely clear but what comes through is an intensity of feeling — the sensation of discovering a sophisticated and dangerous, excitingly new adult world opening up in front of you for the first time.
What’s most charming is that the movie knows full well how ridiculous a lot of these conversations can sound. There’s a wistful quality in Sama’s look back at being young, beautiful and pretentious. It’s no coincidence that the director himself plays a supporting role as Carlos’ cool, long-haired biker uncle, sharing his weed, wisdom and old blues records with the boy on lazy afternoons, obviously envious of his exploits.
The film only falters in its final stretch, when Sama and his co-screenwriters Rodrigo Ordoñez and Max Zunino try and impose too much of a structure on their anecdotal adventures. A final night at the Aztec, set to the doom-laden stomp of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” piles on the melodramatic contrivances, with hoary misunderstandings based on sitcom stuff like who’s going in and out of the bathroom at the wrong time. It’s the only part of the movie when you can feel the heavy hand of a writer manipulating the memories.
Until then, “This is not Berlin” is an uncommonly pleasurable coming of age story, one that will no doubt inspire flashbacks and wry smiles in audience members who were once similarly impressionable (and occasionally insufferable) youths. Me, I just wish I could have hung out at the Aztec.
“This is not Berlin” opens Friday, Aug. 30 at the Kendall Square Cinema.
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