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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘La Civil’ review: A mother’s desperation

Arcelia Ramírez as Cielo, whose daughter has been kidnapped, in “La Civil.”

By A.O. Scott

The opening scenes of “La Civil,” Teodora Ana Mihai’s first nondocumentary feature, present a slice of ordinary life in northern Mexico — the morning routine of a teenage girl and her mother. This will be the last normal morning that Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta) and Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez) spend together. Their family is about to be torn apart by a crime that is itself dismayingly routine. By the end of the day, Laura has been kidnapped, and Cielo is plunged into an anguished, endless ordeal as she tries to get her daughter back.

Movies about parents reacting to the abduction of a child — seeking vengeance, justice, rescue — are anything but rare. And while “La Civil” would never be mistaken for a Liam Neeson angry-dad thriller, it does draw on some of the tropes and conventions of the genre. Cielo, played by Ramírez with devastating composure, proceeds from panic to terror to monomaniacal determination. After her first frightening meeting with the two young men who claim to represent the kidnappers, she never stops moving. We follow her as she descends into a world of violence and cruelty that exists in the midst of her everyday reality.

Cielo’s estranged husband, Gustavo (Álvaro Guerrero), isn’t much help. He’s slow to accept the news of the kidnapping, reluctant to give up the pickup truck that has been demanded as part of the ransom, and generally vain and inept when it comes to the necessary planning and negotiation. Partial payment doesn’t return Laura to her parents, and neither does the intercession of a supposedly powerful friend of Gustavo’s.

Cielo and Gustavo have been warned to stay away from the police, but it’s not clear the authorities would be of much help. As the days pass, Cielo finds herself increasingly isolated and in peril. After she starts investigating the crime on her own — following suspicious cars, asking questions of a shopkeeper and a funeral home director — someone shoots up her house and sets fire to her car.

Why is this happening? To the characters in “La Civil,” the answers are both obvious and beyond all reckoning. People talk about the drug cartels and the lethal rivalries between them, but Cielo’s plight isn’t immediately connected to the business of narcotics trafficking. Kidnapping is an enterprise in its own right, and the nightmare zone of torture, rape and murder that Cielo uncovers seems to run on pure sadism rather than greed or ambition.

To enter that universe is either to become a victim or to succumb to its grim, amoral code. Or both. For a time, Cielo finds an apparent ally in Lt. Lamarque (Jorge A. Jiménez), a swaggering officer in the national police force. Their association may bring her closer to finding out what happened to Laura — although no closer to Laura herself — but it also makes her complicit in atrocities committed in the name of the law. But the point of “La Civil” — the bitter irony of its title — is that law, morality and basic human decency have no place in the world Cielo must now inhabit.

The film, shot in shallow-focus digital (the cinematographer is Marius Panduru), with many close-ups of Ramírez’s tragic face, is a relentless study in failure, frustration and grief. Its rigor is impressive, but also something of a narrative trap. Once the futility of Cielo’s situation, and her persistence in the face of it, are definitively established, a feeling of paralysis sets in. The demoralization that afflicts Cielo casts a shadow on the audience, whose capacity for compassion may reach its limit even before the full measure of her suffering has been taken.

‘La Civil’

Not rated. In Spanish, with subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes. In theaters.

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