There are never any real earthquakes in Tremors — only a slight shaking of the ground. This doesn’t stop everyone from panicking, however; they don’t know that it’s insignificant, and as far as they’re aware, this one could kill them. The tendency to exaggerate every personal decision like it’s the end of the world runs throughout Tremors, a finely-wrought drama about homosexuality in Guatemala. A sad and wise tale, it expertly displays how limiting homophobic societies can be.
Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) is a family man, a man of the church, and a consultant at a major firm. These things make him loved and respected, but he’s also a homosexual who has left his wife and children to stay with lover Francisco (Mauricio Armas). This reveal doesn’t come until a good forty minutes into the start of the film, however, giving his strange rejection from everyday life something of a Kafkaesque quality. I thought that he must have done something truly terrible to be shamed in such a way, and this is the point — to express how absurd homophobia really is.
His wife, Rosa (María Telón), blames herself, being told that queerness is a result of external forces — i.e., lack of fellatio — than something innate. His children know better. They miss him, stealing a friend’s father’s perfume so they can still smell him. They force Pablo into a difficult decision: is it better to pursue your own happiness at great personal cost, or to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others? This decision, which is often at the heart of many queer narratives, gives Tremors a melancholic, heartfelt quality.
Nuances abound. Pablo’s wife and family aren’t villains — only misguided. One argument between Rosa and Pablo’s mother is humorous in that both women use ignorant arguments to counter one another. Likewise, Pablo is not a perfect gay man; he drinks too much, is too proud. His lover is happily out, but he works as a masseuse — not a top-level consultant— and has no family of his own. Pablo tells Francisco that he never thought it was going to be this hard. Francisco responds: “This isn’t Luxembourg.” This moral ambivalence is reflected in the muted and dark colour palette, full of shadowy areas and wide-open spaces.
The only truly malevolent presence is the Nurse Ratchett-like evangelical leader, a woman who will do anything to get Pablo to change. More symbol than character, she brings these themes into deep relief, expertly displaying how barbaric attitudes can be weaponized in the pursuit of capital and power. While these kinds of tales can often lean too much into the suffering aspect, Tremors is also full of humour. When Pablo claims the offertory, he walks around with a card reader, suggesting that collecting the tithe is less charity work than operating a business.
What director Jayro Bustamente understands is that humour can often heighten drama. For most people, even those dealing with the issues that Pablo has, life isn’t completely bleak. Stressing the good things, including him actually enjoying gay sex (something a lot of suffering gay narratives forget), only makes the sadness stronger. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s an honest and empathetic one. Pablo deserves a better life than this.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.