It might be said that terroir is at the heart of Juan Pablo González’s stark and subtle drama Dos Estaciones. It is, in many ways, a film about the crafting of tequila in the highlands of Jalisco, in western Mexico. As aficionados know, though tequila’s origins are ancient and mysterious (or just disputed), the spirit received Mexico’s first appellation of origin in 1974. This legally reserved the name “tequila” only for spirits distilled from Weber azul (blue agave) throughout the state of Jalisco and in a few small municipalities elsewhere in Mexico. The deep history of tequila production around the town of Tequila (yes, Virginia, there is such a place, gracias a Dios, just an hour north of Guadalajara) led to the town, the nearby volcano, and the surrounding valleys collectively being named a World Heritage Site in 2006.
Of course, these plays for site-specific authenticity are mostly based on international, legal recognition and there are a bevy of agave liquors made and marketed throughout the world—including in Tequila itself—which, while sold as tequila, are not officially certified as tequila. (Mezcal, sotol and raicilla are a different matter altogether.)
Then again, tequila is not just about site; it’s also about method. Some distilleries base notions of taste and quality on their use of pre-industrial methods (stone or brick ovens for baking agave and a stone wheel—a tahona—to crush them), while many others gladly employ modern presses and autoclaves. Further, while hundreds of Mexican distilleries produce their own line of tequila, they also may rent out their facilities, or sell some of their stock, to other labels, many of them celebrity-co-owned, and headquartered in other countries, c.f. Patrón, Casamigos, and Utah’s own Vida. Notably, too, of the big three—Cuervo, Sauza, and Herradura, among the oldest and most famous tequila brands from Jalisco—only Cuervo is not owned by an American conglomerate.
Blue agave wasn’t always the singular star it is today. In the late 19th century, as Don Cenobio Sauza began to institutionalize modern production methods and national and international distribution, Weber azul ascended to its role as the now-customary source of tequila due to its relatively rapid rate of maturity. It’s an industrial winner, but the legacy of blue agave’s success is a vast monocrop that blankets central Jalisco’s rolling hills, displaces traditional subsistence crops, and is historically subject to disease, called a plague, which is just one of the many challenges faced by Dos Estaciones‘s stoic hero, Doña María (Teresa Sánchez).
Purposeful and resolute, rarely showing a trace of emotion, Doña María begins her day and the film patiently inspecting the entirety of her family’s relatively modest facilities. We come to surmise that she is the last of the line. Gerardo Guerra’s patient and detailed cinematography not only provides a full tour of Doña María’s operation, from the field to the bottle, it seems designed to emphasize the essential bond between the picturesque red soil of Los Altos, the massive agave plants levered out of it, and the exhausting, repetitive work of the distillery’s laborers, men and women transforming raw materials into a finely crafted luxury item, often receiving lower wages than they’ve earned. If it’s not the most recent wave of plague that’s cutting into Doña María’s profits and building up her debts, it’s other scarcities of agave created by thieves and the massive buying power of foreign corporations.
Nevertheless, the patrón, both terse and beneficent, is viewed as a valued member of her workers’ families. As much as Doña María’s duty is to produce a product worthy of her family’s name, she is also understood to be one who provides—most importantly, one who provides jobs in a community entirely dependent on agave agriculture and the distilleries’ success. This responsibility is implicit in Doña María’s seemingly casual dialogue with a young woman, Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), at an employee’s child’s birthday party. “Yes,” Doña María admits, finally. “I have a need for someone with your profile.” The physical implications of the comment are notable, in that something like a mutual seduction develops between the two women as times grow ever harder, exposing both tender and cryptic new facets of Doña María’s character. And just as we understand that Rafaela had been fishing for a job in their first meeting without ever saying so, we begin to wonder if there’s even more she’s fishing for once she’s been put in charge of the distillery’s accounts.
Like the rain, the river, the sun and the shade trees, such personal mysteries make the terroir of Dos Estaciones ever richer, make it a film requiring deep attention. You have to listen and look carefully to fully understand the drama running under the surface. Love is there, as is deep hatred, and while the outcome may not be inevitable, it feels sorely earned, laying bare a difficult and ineluctable truth that can be addressed in no other way. For the elegant, documentary-style presentation of its subject, for its nuanced performances, and its exquisitely quiet drama, Dos Estaciones is most definitely one to be savored right now.
Read all of Salt Lake magazine’s 2022 Sundance reviews.