Sundance 2024 Film Review: Sujo (Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize)

Building on their excellent, award-winning feature Sin señales particulares (Identifying Features), from 2020, Mexican filmmakers Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero return to Sundance this year with Sujo, the tale of a young man’s journey toward a transformative adulthood amidst the violent landscape of rural Michoacán.

The titular character Sujo is just four years old when his father Josue, a cartel hitman, disappears, leaving the child in the care of his aunt Nemesia, a virtual hermit, living on a mountain above their town. The terroristic power and dominance of the cartel that controls the region (known as Tierra Caliente, a potent, infernal sobriquet) is apparent in the timidity of the townspeople, particularly women, and particularly at night.

Throughout the film, the deadly potential of men and the cruel work they do on each other is often viewed from a distance or kept offscreen. Of course, this curtails any celebration of violence, but it also imparts something like mystery on those works, a dark magic whose evidence, when it comes to light, is both repulsive and sublime. Each wound, that is, each clandestine meeting is an embodiment of an institution so vast, so organic in structure, so complex and obscure that it seems as inevitable and eternal as it is incomprehensible. In this remote place, so far from the city, from help or concern (“These people don’t give a shit about us,” insists one character about the denizens of the capital), the cartel is a condition of life. More than a governing or social entity, it is an angry and suspicious, or paranoid, god and all his creation. The bang of fireworks can never not be mistaken for the reports of the actual weapons that one is certain are always about to open fire.

The imperial persona of the local boss, Aurelio—who is only ever heard or seen from the back, remaining a shadow in light—lends itself to the first part of the film’s tones of fable or myth. His initial orders are that the son must be destroyed for fear of what he’ll become, but, as mentioned, his sage aunt is allowed to raise him on tales of immortal stones and animal guardians in what she hopes is innocence, apart from the violent world. What has Nemesia promised, one wonders, in order have such power, and how has she acquired it? 

Whatever influence she may have, she doesn’t live so far from town that its lights and blaring music won’t reach Sujo, who is also provoked by the temptations and curiosity of adolescence that he shares with his friends Jeremy and Jai. At some point Sujo will want to know more about his father and what legacy he’s left his son, dangerous questions that can only draw him into the orbit of the power that for its own preservation must co-opt and then destroy young men. 

To make one’s entry into even the outer edges of Aurelio’s court requires ambition. The key to survival—always an illusion—is learning how to curb that trait, to accept a subservient position and to never look up. This was Josue’s fatal destiny. But it was his bold capture of Aurelio’s restless horse that first brought him to the boss’s attention. That opening scene provides a trio of possibilities, of paths for Sujo to strive for: master, servant, runaway. If he were to break free, like the horse, what would that look like? What route would he take and where? And is there really any chance some other Josue won’t appear to rein him in and return him to captivity?

Sujo is a deeply moving film of discovery, surprising without flash, but nevertheless visually and aurally stunning, featuring complex, understated performances from a stoic Juan Jesús Varela, in the title role, Yadira Pérez, as Nemesia, and Sandra Lorenzano, playing another guide to Sujo in the film’s final part. Alongside Sin señales particulares, Sujo testifies to the consistently high-quality cinematic and narrative talents of Varela and Rondero. They are definitely a creative team to keep an eye on.

Sujo” is the winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic award at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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