Written and Directed by Gian Cassini.
A man’s journey to face the scattered members of his dysfunctional family and understand the life of his absent father, a failed hit man murdered years ago in a Mexican border town.
Part-investigative journalism, part-moving familial mosaic, Gian Cassini’s filmmaking debut Comala sees the director re-examining his own sprawling family tree as he attempts to make sense of his father’s mysterious life and violent death.
Gian’s estranged father, a small-fry Tijuana hitman known as “El Jimmy,” was gunned down in 2010, prompting Gian to speak to most every last willing, living person who knew him in the hope of learning his true story once and for all – and avoiding a similar outcome for future generations of his family.
A tense opening sequence sets the mood perfectly, as Gian tries to convince his mother that her former husband murdered men for nominal sums of money, before he takes a dive down a rabbit-hole of his family’s past that’s as devastatingly probing as it is wistful.
Gian wishes to learn the pattern of his father’s life and death so that he can break the cycle of violence and truly become his own man, yet Comala is ultimately less about El Jimmy than it is those who have been caught up in his orbit. Perhaps most heartbreaking are the stories of Jimmy’s other children – fathered with another woman, and therefore Gian’s half-siblings – one a son who followed in his footsteps and was himself killed, the other a daughter with whom he freely discussed his murders.
How do children reconcile that their father was a killer? There are no easy answers here, and Gian is flabbergasted by the possibility that his dad could indeed have murdered children while being a father to young kids himself. Gian’s desperation to ensure his family name isn’t forever defined by violence then leads him to take a look backwards at El Jimmy’s own father, who fought in Fidel Castro’s revolution and worked for the CIA.
In perhaps the most outwardly telling segment of the doc, El Jimmy’s father outlines the prospect of his son effectively being pre-destined for a life of violence; beyond his revolutionary ways, today El Jimmy’s father remains a right-wing gun nut who believes society should teach children about guns. And yet Gian is sure not to paint his grandfather as a caricature; he appears monstrously flippant but not without self-awareness, accepting a degree of responsibility for his son’s untimely fate.
The thread of regret tapering through Gian’s investigations is not insignificant, and while he certainly doesn’t let either father or grandfather off the hook, there is at least an appreciation here for the wider systemic issues at play; a country with limited opportunities for young men, and a society that places a high value on machismo.
Cassini’s artfully composed, in-the-trenches doc tackles potentially salacious material with sure tenderness, melding a treasure trove of archive video and photos with dynamic contemporary interviews which couldn’t feel further from staid talking heads. The director’s closeness to his subjects helps lower their guard, allowing him to capture some extreme human intimacy – particularly from his mother, the interviewee most obviously affronted by the camera’s presence.
A mournful, introspective work of studious documentary filmmaking, Comala provides a fascinating oral history of one family’s dark past and hopefully brighter future.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.