Son of Monarchs: Review. By Trent Neely.
This film follows Mendel (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a Mexican biologist living in New York, studying the genetic causes for the colors of butterflies, specifically monarchs. One day, Mendel receives a call from his uncle informing him that his grandmother has passed, requiring him to return home to Michoacán to attend her funeral. It is soon apparent that Mendel has been away for some time due to some painful aspects of his past.
Specifically, both his parents were killed in a flood resulting from an accident in a mine, leaving his brother Simón as the only other living member of his immediate family. In addition to the flood’s personal cost, the mine’s practices decimated the local monarch butterfly population. Over the years Mendel and Simón grew apart following their parents’ death as both found their own ways to cope. The film centers on Mendel’s personal journey of self reflection and realization as he meditates on the traumas of his past, his relationships with others and the world around him, and the relationship between man and nature following the funeral.
Writer and director Alexis Gambis does a tremendous job crafting a fully realized character in Mendel and a fully dimensional story world. Throughout the film, we see Mendel wrestle with his ties to both America and Mexico. Characters from both countries repeatedly discuss the intricacies of U.S./Mexican immigration and relations; Mendel seems keenly aware of the pros and cons of both countries.
Mendel also grapeles with the complex realities of industry and its impact on the environment. One of the sources of tension in Mendel and Simón’s relationship is that by necessity, Simón is working at the mine that flooded and resulted in their parents’ death that has since reopened. At his core, Mendel seems to be a man somewhat conflicted between science and a sense of spirituality. Mendel studies the workings of butterflies for a living and is searching for a genetic answer to their beauty. Yet throughout the film, we see flashbacks and hear voiceover on how Mendel’s father and grandmother taught him that the beauty of butterflies were the result of magic.
Even going as far to say that the butterflies themselves represent the spirits of their ancestors. As a result of this, monarch butterflies are effectively used as a recurring symbol throughout the film, mainly Mendel’s journey to understand himself. Gambis makes sure that these varying facets receive enough care depth so we understand how they impact the characters and the world of the film, while at the same time not providing easy answers for the viewers or forcing ideas on them.
These vast thematic ideas are brought to life due to great performances from the entire cast particularly Tenoch Huerta Mejía as Mendel, who very subtly, yet fully portrays a man in conflict with many things: two countries, science and the spiritual, his desire to run from his past and his pain contrasting with the need to confront it. These complexities are rarely expressed with direct rage or sadness, but instead through the way in which the dialogue is delivered and physical posture. Because his performance for the most part is so defined by restraint and suntelty, when more direct expressions of rage and sadness occur, it feels more visceral.
Another aspect that helps make this film feel fully layered is the marriage of image and sound. For instance, the film opens up with Mendel dissecting and studying a butterfly. The cinematography by Alejandro Mejía is up close, reminiscent of a documentary, clinical and objective. When it comes to the sound design, it is somewhat brutal, we hear tearing as Mendel pulls back layers of the specimen.
In addition, the music by Cristobal MarYán is composed of somber strings as voiceover plays saying that the butterflies represent ancestors. In a few opening moments, the film introduces the main symbol, part of its significance to the protagonist through voiceover, and uses sound design and music to convey that emotional weight to the viewers. In addition, Gambis and the sound department use sound to provide texture to the film. For most of the scenes in New York, there is traffic noise almost always audible in the film while for scenes in Michoaćan which is more rural, the sound design instead focuses on overlapping dialogue during the funeral, or wilderness sounds when characters are outside.
If there is one drawback to the film it is that while it offers great depth to a lot of its ideas and characters, that time and attention can cause the pace of the film to lag at some points.
If you are looking for a story with cinematography that highlights the beauty of nature, uses sound to entrance the audience, all while telling the stories of characters that feel real and complex, check out this film if given the chance.
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