Most of the better moments in Hari Sama’s This Is Not Berlin come early, before the hoary plot devices start clanking into place. Take, for example, a wordless scene in which the two main characters, high school pals, try and fail to blow rings of cigarette smoke to impress one another. It’s an honest and recognizable instance of camaraderie on the edge of naiveté and rebellion and it lands with a much lighter touch than the stuff we’re about to be hammered over the head with.
Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) and Gera (José Antonio Toledano) are teenage punk rock wannabes in mid-1980s Mexico City, too weird to fit in at high school and too bourgeois for the underground. But Gera’s older sister Rita (Ximena Romo), the singer in an experimental, political new wave band, provides an in-road to the art world they long to enter and to partake of in all its drug and party-fueled glory
Sama (co-writing the screenplay with Rodrigo Ordoñez and Max Zunino) based This Is Not Berlin loosely on his own experiences as a young man. The familiarity shows. Thought the film may come up short in terms of character and weight, the specificity of its time and place feels unassailable. In both this and its sexuality, This Is Not Berlin sometimes resembles Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. What comes through strongest, though, is Sama’s disdain for the actual art produced by the scene depicted. This is acknowledged in the screenplay; the title comes from an art dealer’s impatience with big shot Nico’s (Mauro Sanchez Navarro) inability to make anything that’s not derivative of European trends. But the superficiality is also fully realized onscreen. Every meticulously staged, passionately executed performance piece is hilariously embarrassing in its self-consciousness.
Sama establishes the film’s milieu as a sexually egalitarian place. When Gera sees two men kissing at Rita’s favorite hangout, he asks, “Is this a gay bar?” “It’s an everything bar,” she replies. As it progresses, however, the film begins to grow suspicious of the scene’s queerness hierarchy, eventually inverting the familiar tale of a character having to perform a sexuality that isn’t their own in order to conform.
It’s here that things start to get shaky. When Carlos’ natural beauty opens the door to the inner sanctum, Sama starts dropping the foreboding music onto the soundtrack. The world into which Carlos has been welcomed is a self-evidently scary one. And it doesn’t stop there. As Nico and others display cruelty, selfishness and manipulation toward Carlos and Gera, This Is Not Berlin becomes a portrait of predatory gay men that would likely meet with the approval of most evangelicals.
This Is Not Berlin‘s sex and danger would likely keep that crowd away but, under the risqué facade, its seedy coming-of-age melodrama is pretty by-the-book stuff. It’s as if John Hughes intercepted a screenplay meant for Larry Clark.