Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's "Dona Herlinda and Her Son" (opening Friday at the Los Feliz and Monica 4-Plex) is as frightening as is it is funny, a delicious satire on human behavior as conditioned by the dictates of bourgeois propriety.
In adapting a story by Jorge Lopez Paez, Hermosillo proves as adept at revealing what makes people tick within their particular society as Eric Rohmer, with whom he has been aptly compared.
Talk about having it all. A Guadalajara neurosurgeon specializing in pediatrics, Rodolfo (Marco Antonio Trevino) has youth, looks, money, status and a devoted lover Ramon (Arturo Meza), a music student younger and even more handsome than he. Alas, Rodolfo also has a mother, Dona Herlinda (Guadalupe del Toro), with whom he lives on an elegant estate.
Almost every Sunday, Rodolfo and a reluctant Ramon accompany Dona Herlinda to her favorite outdoor restaurant overlooking beautiful Lake Chapala. Often she manages to include in the party an attractive young woman whom she regards as a prospective daughter-in-law. Ramon has watched Rodolfo dodge the Anas, Rositas and Lupitas, but Olga (Leticia Lupersio) proves to be a different case: She's the woman Rodolfo decides to marry because "it will make my mother happy."
Hermosillo makes us wonder anew at the audacity with which some people selfishly, ruthlessly manipulate others--and at the capacity of those others to accommodate such actions out of love. Dona Herlinda is without shame and so is her son. Poor Ramon is too young, too infatuated and too scared of losing Rodolfo to exercise that power over others that attractive people possess. Dona Herlinda and her son remind us of the great truth that those who get what they want are often those who are least honest with themselves. On one level Dona Herlinda would most certainly deny her son's homosexuality--or, as it turns out, bisexuality--yet on another she unhesitatingly exploits it, inviting the impoverished Ramon to move in with her and Rodolfo, even going so far as to say that Rodolfo's bed is certainly big enough for two people.
Dona Herlinda is really something else: a woman who would encourage her son's homosexual love affair as a way of binding him to her at the very moment she's planning to marry him off. Yet she can serenely disregard the contradictions, not to mention potential cruelty, of her position and actions.
In Del Toro's marvelously controlled portrayal, Dona Herlinda is a plump, still pretty woman who prevails through an unyielding sweetness and generosity combined with an unassailable presumptuousness: Why, if Rodolfo is off courting Olga, Ramon of course will be only too happy to serve as her companion. Dona Herlinda will never, never let herself be left alone.
Is Dona Herlinda--who even charms Ramon's uneasy parents--a phony, a total monster, a black widow who devours those she ostensibly loves? Hermosillo's greatest success is in allowing her to remain an enigma, even confronting us with the confounding possibility that, after all is said and done, "Mother knows best."
This is a wonderfully unpredictable film that dares to suggest that maybe middle-class people are happiest when they conform, provided they're willing to countenance more than a bit of hypocrisy and dishonesty to make their lives work. It's not impossible to imagine that most people could recognize something of themselves or their world up there on the screen.
As in all good films, even the minor players stand out. Guillermina Alba is as fine (as Ramon's staunch, spunky friend) as are Meza and Trevino.
There's a deceptively artless simplicity to Hermosillo's style. Just as we think that he's disregarding pacing, he stuns us with his sense of movement, and at all times his compositions are remarkable in their beauty and meaning.
For all the sophistication of its best films, the Mexican cinema still remains largely unknown outside the Spanish-speaking community, even in Los Angeles. "Dona Herlinda and Her Son" (Times-rated Mature, for considerable nudity), however, is the kind of work that could change all that.
'DONA HERLINDA AND HER SON' A Cinevista release of a Clasa Films Mundiales production. Producer Manuel Barbachano Ponce. Director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo. Screenplay Hermosillo; adapted from a story by Jorge Lopez Paez. Camera Miguel Ehrenberg. Set designer Daniel Varela. Costumes Jaime Larios. Film editor Luis Kelly. Made with the students and teachers of Centro de Cine y Critica del Occidente (Guadalajara). With Arturo Meza, Marco Antonio Trevino, Leticia Lupersio, Guadalupe del Toro, Angelica Guerrero, Donato Castaneda, Guillermina Alba, Charo Constantini, Josefina Gonzalez, Arturo Villasenor. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.