Belize Fest entry 'The Beginning of Time' is a moving portrait of impoverished elderly
Films about the very old among us are a rare thing, perhaps because of society’s bias toward youthfulness and its desire not to gaze too long on weathered faces and bodies, or perhaps because spending too much screen time with the elderly reminds us all of our inevitable mortality. The most we can usually expect is a “geezer” comedy like Grumpy Old Men or A Walk in the Woods, which find humor in people well past their prime not acting their age.
Saturday night at the Belize International Film Festival brought a film that not only respects the elderly, but is downright political about the way societies often treat them. The Beginning of Time (El Comienzo del Tiempo), by the young Mexican director Bernardo Arellano, is a lovely drama using nonprofessional actors to illustrate how sometimes the late stages of a life can consist of unimaginable and heartbreaking struggle. Strongly reminiscent of the poignant 1937 Leo McCarey classic Make Way for Tomorrow (which the director didn’t profess to know during a Q&A), it centers on a couple in their early 90s, Toño and Bertha, who suddenly find themselves in desperate straits when the failing government opts to suspend their social-security pensions. Toño goes to his local government office fully confident they will listen to reason and not deny him his usual check, but he is stonewalled by one blasé bureaucrat after another. With a stern landlord hounding them, Toño and Bertha eventually resort to selling their belongings on the street, shoplifting at the supermarket, and setting up a makeshift tamale stand.
The couple have one adult son, Jonas, they haven’t seen in years, and one day they reunite by chance when Jonas stops his car by the tamale stand and his twenty-something son, Paco, asks for directions. Jonas promises to help out, but he leaves Paco with his grandparents and never returns. Paco, a sullen slacker, isn’t much use to the couple, but ultimately their plight stirs something in him.
All the elderly characters in the film are played by nonprofessionals, and Arellano has made a particularly fortuitous discovery with 92-year-old Antonio Pérez Carbajal, who plays Toño. The director actually found his feisty, indomitable lead actor selling wares on the street. In a post-screening Q&A, Arellano said of Carbajal, “He changed my life…and the film changed him. He believes in the idea of the film.”
During the course of the movie, Toño encounters other elderly gentleman who Arellano said represented different dimensions of the senior experience: a watchmaker who waxes philosophical on time and the cosmos; a barber who writes poetry dedicated to the unattainable love of his life; and a determined political activist. This latter leads to a final scene in which Toño the character and Carbajal the actor participate in an actual protest march against the Mexican government’s treatment of the poor and aged.
During a Belize panel discussion on “The Social Impact of Films,” participant Arellano declared that “documentary and fiction are for me almost the same—you choose the parts you want to show.” His blend of fiction with nonprofessionals from the film’s milieu allows him to “work with metaphor, not just reality,” he explained, permitting him “to try to translate into fiction a universal thing—all these troubles being repeated [around] the world.” Pier Paolo Pasolini, who often used nonprofessionals, is a role model, and his Gospel According to St. Matthew is one of his favorites.
In that post-screening Q&A, Arellano said he deliberately included three generations in his family story. “It’s a film about heritage,” he explained, the importance of generational connections. “Sometimes we need to grow up and leave something for others.” Jonas, the neglectful son, represents those who have led Mexico to its current crisis of economic inequality. “The middle generation doesn’t do anything,” Arellano contended. “They buy that model.” Meanwhile, “the older people are the ones working, the ones who never give up.”
As for Paco, who’s an annoying lump for a large portion of the story, his turnaround to empathy for his grandparents and finally taking some initiative represent “a little bit of hope in the film.” As a member of the audience, taking his cue from the title, astutely observed, “Time begins when you decide time begins.”