In the Dust
By Caitlin Quinlan

Dir. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero, Mexico/U.S./France, no distributor

Sujo screened Wednesday, March 13, at Museum of the Moving Image as the Opening Night selection of First Look 2024.

In Identifying Features, the first feature-film collaboration between Mexican filmmakers Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero from 2020, the backs of characters’ heads are shown almost as frequently as their faces. An effective visual nod to the title of the film, this articulated the facelessness of contemporary, drug-related violence in Mexico, where perpetrators have their anonymity maintained by corruption, and their countless victims become mere statistics. What can be gleaned about a person from this rear point of view, other than the dark and dangerous direction in which they are headed?

Sujo, Valadez and Rondero’s new film, which won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, continues yet also refutes this position. The back-of-the-head shot occurs once or twice, a soft refrain to recall an ever-present danger, but this is a film that is fundamentally more hopeful and forward-facing. The title is the protagonist’s name, an immediate act of recognition, even if for Sujo himself it’s a source of confusion. No one in his small town in the state of Michoacán can tell him what the name means or where it came from, only that it was given to him by his father, Josué, after the death of his mother in childbirth. When it comes to the local cartels, however, names don’t matter; Josué is better known as “El ocho,” the Eighth, his impressive ranking as a sicario. When Sujo comes of age, despite his father’s legacy, he will be the Fortieth.

This question of legacy hangs over Sujo like the darkest of clouds. He is introduced in the film as a very young child, waiting in the back of his father’s car while Josué fulfills his duties. Here, Valadez and Rondero again make significant use of point-of-view shots and perspective—the camera is positioned where Sujo is sitting, looking ahead at the life of criminality awaiting him and other boys in this town. There is no question that they will inherit their fathers’ mantles. But Josué has overstepped the mark in killing a fellow cartel member (and son of one of the bosses), and soon his superiors are after him and his own child. Josué is murdered and a target is placed on Sujo’s back, until his aunt Nemesia (Yadira Pérez) steps in to protect him. She lives outside of the community and shelters Sujo with a promise to the cartel leaders that he’ll never return to the town.

In the early scenes of the film, Josué is barely visible, his face cast in shadow or partially hidden by his black baseball cap. He is a glimmer of a memory for Sujo, an unknowable figure of unimaginable importance. It’s a keen sleight of hand for the directors, too, who cast Juan Jesús Varela (also in Identifying Features) as both Josué and, later, the adolescent Sujo, a physical and symbolic re-embodiment of the character. Josué and Sujo appear to be two halves of a whole, two pathways presented to them as young men.

Sujo’s banishment gives the story a feeling of fairy-tale grandeur, of a prodigal son sent away for fear of his powers or the retribution he may strike. And while Valadez and Rondero are clearly signaling this, and go on to present Sujo as an unusual case more broadly, they keep the film grounded and close to reality. Dialogue is sparse but always naturalistic, and shots of the landscape maintain a sense of earthiness, as the dust of the dry land floats up into the frame. As he grows older and Nemesia loses her ability to keep him safe, Sujo ventures closer to the cartels with the help of his closest friends, Jai (Alexis Varela) and Jeremy (Jairo Hernandez), who are already teetering on the brink of affiliation. In this film violence and killing occur off-screen, eschewing glorification, but death pervades every frameamong Valadez and Rondero's skills is their ability to amplify terror by making it so matter of fact.

Jai and Jeremy are brothers and the sons of Rosalia (Karla Garrido), a close friend of Nemesia’s who frequently stays over at her house on the hill. Here, the filmmakers subtly introduce one of the story’s most intriguing strands—Nemesia and Rosalia’s relationship is suggested to be a romantic one, but only through brief shots of their toes touching in bed and a single line of dialogue. “I used to hate your father,” Jai and Jeremy’s dad says to Sujo, believing him to have been having an affair with Rosalia. Instead he refers to “that bitch,” Nemesia, as “the one who was fucking her, if you can call it that.” It raises the question of why Nemesia, already pushing at the limits of the cartel’s generosity by caring for Sujo all these years, hasn’t been targeted herself, or Rosalia for that matter. But a central facet of the film, as with Identifying Features, is the apparent power of women in this otherwise male-dominated environment. Nemesia is bound to the spiritual realm, foreseeing the destinies of the men around her while the community whispers about her supposed witchcraft. This renders her untouchable to the cartels, even feared by others. Yet the film is most interested in women for their real-world strength and fortitude, and it is only through their care that Sujo is able to survive.

Nemesia’s supernatural gifts alert her to a re-emerging threat to her nephew’s life, and this time he has to flee. The film is not resigned to catastrophe for its characters, and in giving Sujo an eventual out, the directors suggest that escape is possible. It’s not that he is more deserving of freedom than others in his community but simply that circumstance forces him to find it; Valadez and Rondero use his position as a means to make a larger statement about the potential for young people living in dangerous times in Mexico. Arriving in Mexico City, the now young adult Sujo carves out a new path for himself, hauling vegetables and laboring in the early hours of the morning. He finds time to sit in on local college classes and befriends the professor Susan (Sandra Lorenzano), who becomes another guiding female figure in his life.

Because Valadez and Rondero have so masterfully sustained tension and dread for the majority of the film’s runtime, this chapter of Sujo’s life in the capital never feels entirely free of threat. Around every corner, there are temptations and dangers calling him back to an old way of life. Yet in Sujo, which accompanies and expands upon Identifying Features so profoundly, hope is the sustaining force. The prospect of an education, steady money, and personal safety allows Sujo’s self-assurance to emerge and his priorities to adjust; life is no longer valued by a cartel rank, though the number 40 is forever tattooed on his chest. In the closing shots of the film, the young man walks toward the room where his academic qualification exam will be held. Once he is out of frame, the camera drifts down the empty corridor as it fills with the dust of Michoacán, the clouds of Sujo’s past. There is no one there to follow into darkness.