It is appropriate that the protagonist of Mexico’s Oscar entry, I’m No Longer Here, is named Ulises. Played admirably by Juan Daniel Garcia Trevino, the stoic lead of the story serves as a modern day Odysseus (Ulysses being the Latinized equivalent), on a solo journey to find himself a home thanks to a momentary lapse in judgment and display of hubris. Like the ancient epic, his path can be muddled at times, and even become downright confusing, but it also shows true growth because he has something to fixate upon. In the case of this Ulises, it’s the unlikely passion of native dance.
Growing up in the slums of Monterrey, Ulises is the leader of a small gang that call themselves “Terkos,” meaning someone who is stubborn in their ways and attitudes. The group bonds over their love of cumbia dancing and distinctive hairstyles to match the cultural history. For the boys, this includes shaving the back of the head, bangs in the front, slicked down length on both sides, almost substituting for facial hair, and something decorative on top. Ulises fashions himself spikes dyed blonde, his own crown in another parallel to his namesake, who was king of the island Ithaca. Aside from that, he has an almost Samson-esque confidence that comes from his personal style, which he exudes through his dancing. Writer/director Fernando Frias de la Parra gives us an almost Tarantino-level of focus on feet throughout the story, whether in dance or transit, to emphasize the territory Ulises has to traverse.
Told in non-linear fashion (another parallel to Homer), the basic story has Ulises and his Terkos enjoying their youth and their music. When they try to mooch some cash off of school children (the gang members have all dropped out of school or never gone) to buy an mp3 player, they are confronted by members of the local cartel, who buy influence in the city by performing charitable acts in addition to their organized crime. Ulises steals a walkie-talkie from one of them and plays a prank with his friends, leading to threats and eventual assassinations of associated gang members. Terrified, Ulises flees with his family, and is himself smuggled to the United States, attempting to find a living in Queens.
Wandering around the urban jungle of New York allows for this film to become one of the most accessible to American audiences out of all the International Feature entries, because there’s a healthy amount of English and Spanish translation to be had due to Ulises’ language barrier. Academy rules state that at least 50% of the dialogue has to be in a foreign language, but that’s it, so having about 30% of this movie being in English can help audiences engage.
This is especially true when Ulises meets Lin (Angelica Chen), a high school student and granddaughter of a Chinese immigrant who runs a convenience store. Initially hired as a day laborer to clean garbage off the roof, Ulises ends up squatting in a shed there and befriending Lin, who attempts to communicate with him despite not knowing any Spanish.
Lin can be something of a hit-and-miss character. At times she serves as an audience surrogate, curious to the point of obsession with Ulises’ style and skill. At other points her enthusiasm can border on cultural appropriation, as she immediately starts adapting his fashion and hair. She treats him like a pet sometimes, and even though she means well, she seems more satisfied with having him around as a novelty rather than truly understanding him. Even when she makes an earnest effort to learn his language, there are deeper traumas in his life that no English-to-Spanish dictionary will ever properly translate.
Continuing the Odyssey parallels, I would say that Lin is the closest we get to Calypso, the nymph who hosts/imprisons Odysseus before he finally makes it home. Similarly, there’s a sex worker he meets early on named Gladys (Adriana Arbelaez) who somewhat poses for Circe, the sorceress who guides Odysseus on his journey in exchange for favors. There’s no Penelope or Telemachus equivalent in this story, more just Monterrey substituting for Ithaca itself, and a life that seems ever more impossible to return to with each passing day.
The film is at its best when it combines Ulises’ passion with his own moral reckoning. Throughout his ordeal, he believes through his stone face that he is in the right at all times, that his skills can save him, and that people will love him because of his dancing, which really is super cool. But like Odysseus, he has to find that balance and humility to recognize his faults as well as his qualities. Like Poseidon blocked Odysseus from returning to his shores, Ulises knows that if he goes home as he is, he will be killed. So the question becomes about what he’s willing to do to return to those he loves, or if he can forge a new path as the young man he is, and watching him take this personal inventory is at times fascinating.
But in keeping with the film’s focus on dance, the plot can lose a step here and there. When it’s in rhythm, the film is a vastly entertaining look at a section of culture we don’t often see through the lens of a very familiar story. When the beat’s off, however, it can almost get derailed. Thankfully, more often than not, Ulises can dance like nobody’s watching and still draw a crowd.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How much English should there be in an International submission? How good can you dance? Let me know!