This Is Not Berlin review Xabiani Ponce de León

Year: 2019
Director(s): Hari Sama
Writer(s): Rodrigo Ordonez, Hari Sama
Region of Origin: Mexico
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: n/a
Color, 115 mins

Synopsis: Carlos’ life changes when he discovers Mexico City’s underground nightlife. (Source)

The 80s have become a lazy crutch for our nostalgia starved culture. Yes, it’s a pivotal time in history, but its constant overuse in film and pop culture has become meaningless. Enter Hari Sama’s This is Not Berlin. Sama’s affecting coming-of-age film isn’t here to pay lip service. Sama is reaching back towards personal experience to explore awakening alongside volatile social unrest and fears. In essence, he’s dissected the tonal/artistic zeitgeist and its relationship to a changing world. Packed with a slew of new wave tunes, punk performance art and a fierce set of leads, Sama has created a timeless story that still rings relevant today. 

In 1986 Mexico City, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) is a restless spirit. He wanders throughout school and his social circles searching for more. The same goes for his best friend Gera (Jose Antonio Toledano). After using his technical wizardry to fix up a synth for Gera’s sister’s band (of whom he has a crush on), he and Gera are invited to The Azteca, a local bohemian hotspot jam packed with artists, intellectuals, druggies and searing punk rock. It also happens to be a gay bar. Carlos and Gera are instantly blown away by the club patron’s fearless attitudes, and they instantly thirst for more. Soon enough, Carlos befriends Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), The Azetca’s owner and budding revolutionary. From here, Carlos discovers that the world is much bigger than he ever could’ve dreamed. 

Through and through, Sama’s film thrives through a sincere portrait of art, politics and everything in between. He’s really captured a state of flux, both in terms of the world that Carlos and Gera inhabit, and their shifting states of mind. There’s an electricity that runs through each scene, as the action spills from intimate, candid moments to The Azteca’s crowded walls and the noise rock that inhabits it. Sama captures everything with vivid, colorful photography which is only matched by his characters. With a story that encompasses a longer period of time, the plot flows naturally to evolve what we’re witnessing. The entire thing feels unmistakably personal, reflecting how art, revolution and community are connected, especially in the face of uncertainty.  

This Is Not Berlin review Xabiani Ponce de León José Antonio Toledano Ximena Romo

A film like this is only as good as its cast, and luckily, this one’s really good. Xabiani Ponce de Leon is our perfect entry point. Ponce de Leon embodies the innocence needed to strike through the noise. As he transforms Carlos throughout, he maintains a sense of urgency, blending necessary transgression with sincerity. On the side, Jose Antonio Toledano’s Gera and Mauro Sanchez Navarro offering two branching paths for Carlos. With their characters, each are as irresistible as they are quirky and propulsive. As Gera’s all-too-cool sister, Rita, Ximena Romo does a lot with limited screen time. She makes each moment count, brining duality to each scene. Marina de Tavira and Sama himself, play siblings and Carlos’ mother and uncle respectively. De Tavira has a few standout moments, fighting an unsaid trauma while doing her best to protect her son. Sama acts as a defacto spirit guide for Carlos, bringing metatextual qualities to the already dense film. 

This is Not Berlin brings to life youthful transgression and revolution all in one. Sama’s hyper analytical tribute to childhood and art is one that never loses intrigue, wit or charm. In a lot of ways, it feels like a punked-out, coked-up version of Roma, capturing a turbulent time and place, and those doing their best to weather the storm. You can come for the music and endless amounts of style, but the film’s ability to bridge its past to today’s present will win you over.