The kidnappers were often ghetto boys, some as young as 14, waving big guns in small hands and demanding ransoms ranging from millions of dollars to 2 quarts of milk, a dozen eggs, sugar and a sack of rice. They slipped through alleys like ragged spirits, dodging dogs and counting bullets in a Mexico run wild with street gangs and cops on the take.
Director Everardo Gout has captured their despair and twisted desires in his first feature film, "Days of Grace," a kinetic, sleek, brutal portrait of a nation. The movie is an interlocking series of vicious tales unfolding amid the squalor and splendor of Mexico City's baroque facades, cross-marked graves and hillsides aglow in sepia light.
The heart of the film is Lupe, a frenetic policeman played by Tenoch Huerta, who describes himself as a hyena. His virtue is shattered by duplicitous superiors and the crime that engulfs his family and fills him with vengeance. Like many of the characters, Lupe is afforded little solace amid the bloodshed, darkened rooms and ominous soundtrack featuring Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Atticus Ross, who won an Academy Award in 2011 for original score for "The Social Network."
"How can a man become a monster?" asked Gout. "How do you lose your humanity?"
The country has been shaken by a "huge wave of violence," said the director, whose script grew out of four years of research that included interviews with kidnappers and victims and listening to hours of hostage negotiation tapes. "I felt closer and closer to that danger. I had friends who got kidnapped. That's when I decided to do a movie. But let's do a movie that also says something to the world."
"Days of Grace," which opens in Los Angeles on May 15, won eight Ariel Awards from the Mexican Academy of Film, including best picture, after its 2012 premiere. The narratives span nearly a decade and are told against three World Cup soccer championships when crime drops by an estimated 30%. Those moments are known as days of grace, a "sacred time," says the narrator, when "the world holds its breath as the fate of some, of all, one way or another depends on a soccer ball."
But in that deceptive lull, menace lurks. Kidnappings in Mexico reached about 1,700 in 2013, a 20% increase over the previous year. Nongovernmental organizations say the figure is much higher and includes abductions carried out by drug networks and criminal gangs spread across cities and villages, and towns along the U.S. border. In recent years, the Mexican police also have been complicit in many disappearances.
Such troubles spun through a morning in a West Hollywood conference room, where Gout, 39, sat amid office chatter draped in a slate blue scarf and peering from behind silver-rimmed glasses. A child of Mexico City, he started writing short stories when he was 8, but by 14 his mother, a friend to the late surrealist director Luis Buñuel, urged him toward film.
"I inherited his desk," Gout said of Buñuel, whose films such as "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "Los Olvidados," the saga of juvenile delinquents surviving the slums of Mexico City, were landmarks in tough social commentary. "We were neighbors, and we all became like a family." So much so that Gout moved his production office into Buñuel's old home. "I was surrounded by the magic of that place."
But Gout's cinematic style — pulse-driven editing and camera shots that can be at once operatic and hauntingly intimate — is more reminiscent of Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" or Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet," on which he worked as a second assistant director. Gout's film is arriving in the U.S. at an auspicious time for Mexican directors: Alejandro G. Iñárritu won Academy Awards this year for director and best picture for "Birdman" and in 2014 Alfonso Cuarón won for directing "Gravity."
"There's a lot of talent coming out of Mexico," said Gout, whose brother, Leopoldo, produced "Days of Grace." "Every year, every festival, there's a Mexican presence winning prizes. I'm in awe of and respect [Iñárritu and Cuarón]. They're another generation. We're all striving to tell stories." Gout recently traveled to Pittsburgh to direct episodes for "Banshee," a Cinemax series about an ex-con on the run from a mob boss.
Reviews of "Days of Grace" have been mixed. The Guardian said "violence, nihilism and despair are keynotes" in what it described as a "confident, well-made film that ends up in a blind alley of cynicism." Variety praised the movie's energy but noted its "flashy style is hit or miss, involving too many pseudo-poetically blurry images and handheld shaky cam shots."
"Days of Grace" evolved after Gout grew dissatisfied with his production company's work on commercials and music videos. He said he wanted to create something meaningful; he also had a young daughter he wanted to inspire. Many of the scenes were shot in Mexico City's most dangerous neighborhoods. To avoid being robbed or kidnapped, Gout said he negotiated with local gangs who demanded he pay for street cleaning, new lighting and in one case an eye operation for a 7-year-old girl.
"I saw the huge disconnect in society between the government, the people and the gangs," said Gout, who found it exciting to work amid the specter of violence. "The gangs wanted to improve their communities … but there was a war going on." Much of it being waged by boys and young men pressed into the kidnapping business as foot soldiers for mobsters and police officers who frequently accept bribes.
Despite kidnappings, shootings and incessant crime, Mexico City has in recent years become a refuge — in relative terms — for families escaping police impunity and drug cartel violence in outlying states, including Guerrero, where the abduction and killings of 43 college students have shaken the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Gout's film enters his nation's underworld with an unflinching accounting of the greed, desperation and dangerous alliances that have destroyed so many lives.
"I wanted to speak the language and get the attention of that community," Gout said of the kidnappers. "If I could show them the pain they cause, maybe I could change a life. That was my very arrogant inner thought of making this movie and of trying to leave a better place for my daughter.... She said to me a few days ago: 'Tell me the truth, Daddy. Were you really able to play on the streets when you were a kid?'"