Immigration, especially the problem of undocumented workers in America, has become a hot-button political issue, but we rarely hear about the human factor - the desperate poverty that would cause someone to leave their family behind and face an uncertain future in a country where they have little language skills and have to compete for low-paying jobs. The issue of the physical and mental toll of poverty is tackled head on in Antonio Méndez Esparza's intimate Aqui y Allá (Here and There) winner of the Critics' Week Grand Prize at this years' Cannes Film Festival.
Aqui y Allá looks at the consequences one family faces when the father, Pedro (Pedro De los Santos Juárez) returns to his quiet mountain village in Guerrero, Mexico, after having worked in the U.S. for several years doing menial jobs. The film is divided into four chapters: The Return. Here. Horizon, and "There." In "The Return" Pedro must face the consequences of his long absence when he returns home to his pregnant wife Teresa (Teresa Ramírez Aguirre) and their two daughters, eight-year-old Heidi (Heidi Laura Solano Espinoza) and thirteen-year-old Lorena (Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleon Vazquez.
The family's closeness has been damaged by their long separation and the children must get to know their father all over again. Lorena, the oldest daughter is moody and withdrawn. She has lost interest in school, does not do her homework because she says that she "doesn't understand it, but does not ask for help from either her teacher or her parents. At the same time, Pedro's wife questions whether he had women friends while in New York. Pedro, who sings and plays the guitar, attempts to form a local band called "The Copa Kings, but Lorena can only giggle when he sings and the band's lukewarm reception does not help his financial problems.
In fact, the cost of having to buy instruments only adds to them and he must give eventually give up the thing he most loves to do. In the chapter titled "Here, additional financial hardship hits when Teresa has to undergo a Caesarean birth due to complications and her newborn daughter must fight for her life. In a rural hospital with limited financial resources, Pedro is forced to buy his own medicine and must find eight donors to give blood. Having disbanded The Copa Kings, Pedro looks for work in construction but there are no jobs and what he is must do to support his dreams of a better future becomes clear in the film's final chapter.
Unlike many in the same situation, the family is a close-knit and loving group and there are no resentments, shouting matches, or long-festering family disputes, but the way forward is hard and Esparza does not sugar coat it. The film, however, is neither predictable nor a depressing slog. The director has created fully-realized, three-dimensional people whose spirit transcends rancor or bitterness. Aqui y Allá is episodic and lacking in dramatic peaks and valleys but its pleasures are immense. Through long periods of silence that suggest resignation, the film establishes a mood that is at once restrained, contemplative, and even sublime.