Home Video Hovel: The Amazing Catfish, by Craig Schroeder
So far, it’s been a rough year for women at the box-office. Of the current ten highest grossing films of 2014, only three pass the Bechdel Test (the three being Transformers: Age of Extinction–which, as a franchise, doesn’t treat women so well–Maleficent and The Lego Movie–which passes, but just barely). But there may be some relief in the form of writer/director Claudia Saint-Luce’s The Amazing Catfish, a small picture from 2013 set to get a larger DVD release from Strand Releasing Home Entertainment. The Amazing Catfish, a semi-autobiographical account of Saint-Luce’s life, is a poignant story of sickness, family and human connection.
The Amazing Catfish (subpar title aside) is a patient and delicate study of what it means to connect to other human beings in a global sense, by focusing on a fairly insulated story. Claudia (Ximena Ayala) works at a supermarket in Guadalajara and is a loner in every sense of the word; she lives without any real human contact, sleeping in a destitute and dark apartment, she moves through life with her eyes closed, dragging her feet. When she’s diagnosed with appendicitis she meets Martha (Lisa Owen), a fellow patient at the hospital suffering from HIV. Claudia Saint-Luce doesn’t force a “movie relationship” onto the two women; instead, the relationship between pessimist Claudia and eternal optimist Martha buds slowly and organically. Following the women’s release from the hospital, Martha offers Claudia the sanctuary of her home and family, including three teenage girls and a pre-pubescent boy. As Martha’s health deteriorates and Claudia’s regenerates, the women find themselves in a new, but warm, familial dynamic.
The Amazing Catfish is a strong advocate for women, mainly by refusing to patronize them; no character is presented as overly sympathetic or completely flawless, each has their own struggles, desires and idiosyncrasies. Martha has four children, each delicately portraying a different stage of youth and young womanhood. Ale (Sonia Franco), the oldest daughter, struggles with the responsibilities of budding adulthood while juggling new experiences like love and loss. Wendy (Wendy Guillen), the most jovial of the brigade, is a beautiful young woman who struggles with her weight and tries to hide her increasingly dangerous levels of self-hatred. And Mariana (Andrea Baeza) is the youngest daughter, a teenager caught in the awkward stage between childhood and maturity. All three daughters, and their brother Armando (Alejandro Ramriez-Munoz)–the youngest of the brood, who is confounded by girls despite living with so many–represent four distinct stages of adolescence and the film treats each of them with respect, despite their obvious flaws.
Though these characters are charming and provocative, the film, at only eighty-seven minutes, isn’t able to devote too much time to them. Martha and Claudia are the protagonists, and are fully-fleshed characters. However, Martha’s children don’t get quite the time they need to develop into the characters the film asks of them. Though each of their lives are complex and beg to be extrapolated, they’re only explored to the extent to which they effect the plights of Claudia and Martha. And though the film is patient and organic, it does decompress a bit at the end, coming to an abrupt and all-too-tidy conclusion. This may be the rare case in which a film is just a bit too short.
To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must have at least two named characters who speak to each other about something other than a man. The Amazing Catfish not only passes the Bechdel Test but manages to subvert the very expectations on which the Bechdel Test was originally conceived. There are only two named male characters, and they never meet; and I feel this fact wasn’t lost on director Claudia Saint-Luce. But Saint-Luce is not to be commended for merely subverting unwritten, but firmly rooted, gender roles. She is to be praised for creating a film that is first and foremost an honest look at what it means to be, not just a woman, but a daughter, a mother, a sister and a friend.