The reason for the title of Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s “Temblores” becomes clear within its first few minutes, when the tempestuous anguish of a family conflict is suddenly rendered immaterial for a few brief minutes as the earth begins to shake violently. It’s Guatemala, where earthquakes happen frequently, and they are taken very seriously.
Even before this literal “tremor” strikes, however, the filmmaker’s masterful prologue sequence hints at deeper layers of the movie’s title by pulling us immediately into the situation of Don Pablo, the younger son of a wealthy and influential Guatemala City family, just as his world begins to fall apart. Despite his flawless image as a happily married, devout Christian heterosexual man, he has a male lover – and his secret has come out, even if he hasn’t. As the film opens, he drives through the stormy night into the family estate to face the fallout from the revelation, and even though we don’t know any of that yet, the sense of impending disaster is palpable.
The ensuing confrontation predictably, is histrionic to the point of being comical – or would be, if it weren’t for the ugliness wrapped inside the unanimous recriminations being hurled at him by his wife, parents, and the other members of the extended clan. Despite the temporary reprieve granted by the rumbling threat of natural disaster, his personal life has been turned upside down. No longer welcome at home, he moves in with his boyfriend, Francisco – liberated, out, and completely comfortable with his sexuality – while still attempting to protect himself and his family from “shame” and scandal. At first, he embraces his freedom and the bliss he feels with Francisco; but as his conservative religious family ramps up the pressure and the whispered rumors and secrets cost him his job and his status, he finds himself being pulled inexorably backward. Powerless against the combined force of the evangelical church and the deeply homophobic Guatemalan legal system, he will be forced to make a choice: stay with Francisco in his newfound gay life and lose everything he’s ever had, including his beloved children, or do whatever it takes, even submitting to church-directed “therapy,” to return to his family and give up the only authentic adult love he’s ever known.
For U.S. audiences (at least the ones that are likely to seek out “Temblores”), the subject matter Bustamante tackles here has become familiar enough – so familiar, in fact, that the movie’s raw truth may catch them off guard. Conditioned by American film narrative conventions, viewers here are almost certain to expect that love and reason will ultimately prevail and the movie’s protagonist is sure, after a perfunctory emotional struggle, to come out on the right side of his journey and find a way to make peace between his two worlds – or at least the hope of it.
That expectation is part of what gives this exquisitely crafted drama so much power. Pablo’s world is not a Hollywood fantasy, and the reality it shows us is one that goes against the grain in a culture that is, by comparison, as free-thinking and progressive as the one we are privileged to enjoy in America – or at least in its cosmopolitan areas. This is not the cultural climate we are used to seeing in movies about contemporary LGBTQ life; despite the seeming sophistication of its urban setting, under the surface it more closely resembles the oppressively homophobic atmosphere seen in “Brokeback Mountain,” and however confident we may be of a happy ending, such an outcome seems less and less certain as the film goes on.
As for the romance at its center, we might be conditioned also to cling to the bond between Pablo and Francisco as the shelter that will protect them – and us – from the metaphoric tremors that rumble through their lives. Bustamante has not made a love story, however, no matter how tempted we may be to view it through that lens; the heartfelt authenticity he bestows upon the relationship between his two leading men – aided immeasurably by the beautiful performances of Juan Pablo Olyslager (Pablo) and Mauricio Armas Zebadúa (Francisco) – might give us temporary respite and hope, but it also serves to provide a stark contrast between the two conflicting parts of Pablo’s life.
In fact, it’s contrast that fuels “Temblores.” Not only does the telenovela-level near-absurdity of Pablo’s family turmoil appear in stark relief to the blissful oasis he shares with Francisco, so too does the gap between the ideals projected by the church and the actions and behaviors they inspire. Pablo’s family refer to the damage he is causing, yet we repeatedly watch as their various responses to the situation wreaks havoc on all of their own lives; they refer to his sexuality as an “illness,” yet it’s they who seem to be sick. Watching a roomful of anguished churchgoers, arms flailing feverishly as they raise their voices in a cacophony of desperate prayer, it’s hard not to be reminded of the kind of imagery more typically associated with suffering sinners in hell.
That brings home the point of Bustamante’s film, of course. As the filmmaker himself has put it, “It’s a movie that speaks about conditional love, shameful love, love that hurts, about the divine and celestial love that is needed in a context where the earth trembles and destroys everything. The love that gives us an excuse for our extraordinary mastery of double standards.” It’s a context within which it becomes heartbreakingly understandable how a man like Pablo, well-educated and with access to an equally real world where he is free to be who he truly is for the first time in his life, can be trapped into making a choice that denies him his own happiness in favor of satisfying a code of morality he has already recognized as false.
As disconcerting as that realization might be, it’s even more upsetting to recognize that such a situation is still very much a fact of real life for many LGBTQ people all around the world. It’s a testament to Bustamante’s skills as a writer and a director that he has made a film of such nuance and observational honesty that we can view all those involved, even those who oppress themselves in the name of their own oppressors, with compassion.
“Temblores” has met with acclaim at film festivals internationally, including a win as Best Narrative Feature at New York’s NewFest and a Best Actor prize for Olyslager’s charismatic performance at LA’s Outfest. It opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 6.