The manifold themes of “Northern Skies over Empty Space”—there’s revenge, the upending of gender roles, heroism, searching for water in a barren land, a patriarchy on the wane, a natural habitat that is threatening—are something to behold, yet filmmaker Alejandra Márquez Abella has directed an evocative and everchanging film, which opened at Berlinale over the weekend, that draws on multiple narrative threads convincingly. “Northern Skies” (“El Norte Sobre El Vacio” in the original Spanish) is an accomplishment.
A ranch in Tamaulipas, a region in Mexico’s northeast. A family, a brother living nearby, there’s hunting, cattle-raising, looking for water (for there isn’t a lot of it), thieves, the heroic struggle of man against nature, of man against men. The stage is set for an almost manichean struggle.
The story is punctuated by omens and symbolism, Márquez Abella teasing them from the hard landscape that bears down on its dwellers, its fauna, a frog, a spider, the searing heat. Out here, rifles rule the day if you’re planning on surviving, but which is the more threatening, a Remington rifle or the frog? A rifle is only as threatening as its magazine is loaded with enough ammunition. A frog manufactures its own poison.
The star cast member of the film is Paloma Petra in the role of Rosa, the nanny, the cleaning lady, also the protector, her quiet, undemonstrative presence draws you in.
Reynaldo (theatre and film and TV actor Gerardo Trejoluna) inherited the ranch from his father. He was once known as a great hunter; but he’s not that good, anymore—age, a lack of practice? Probably both. When he goes out on a deer-hunting run with Rosa, it is she who ultimately takes the right shot, the kill shot, after he misses. A gentleman’s agreement is struck between the two, it is he who killed the deer, that’ll be the official line, his honor intact.
More than honor, it’s the idea of heroism that’s at stake throughout “Northern Skies”: to preserve the land that you’ve inherited and guard your family against outside danger. Even after thieves pay you a visit, multiple times, to shake you down. Under Márquez Abella’s just and mature direction, the story appears wholly dependent on this idea of honor, lest not just Reynaldo’s world, but the universe, went to pieces because heroism went to the dogs.
The film was written by Gabriel Nuncio and Márquez Abella, the former himself a director, and also producer and screenwriter. Nuncio has previously worked with Cary Fukunaga and is known for his focus on Mexico’s northeastern region throughout his cinematic work.
Márquez Abella’s first feature film is “Semana Santa” (2015). Her follow-up “Las Niñas Bien/The Good Girls” premiered at Toronto in 2018. It was nominated for fourteen Ariel prizes. She directed two episodes in the latest season of “Narcos: Mexico” (featured image: actor Gerardo Trejoluna in the role of Reynaldo).
Film premiered at the 2022 Berlinale. No U.S. date set as of this writing