In Guatemalan writer/director Jayro Bustamante’s feature debut, Ixcanul (2016), the filmmaker shone a light on how an indigenous community around the rim of a volcano inhibited the sexual development and personal agency of 17-year-old María. Their tribalism, traditionalism, and piety keep them cloistered from the advances taking place in the country’s modernizing urban cores — to potentially damaging effects. Bustamante’s follow-up, Temblores (Tremors), unfolds in the very place from which the characters in Ixcanul attempt to sequester themselves. And yet, it’s scarcely the cosmopolitan bastion of tolerance and permissiveness one might expect.
Temblores begins with the family of Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) descending upon a palatial home with the kind of energy one might expect for a funeral. But no one has died — at least, not literally. Pablo might as well be dead to many of them now because he makes a startling announcement that he will be leaving his wife and two children to live with another man, Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadúa). The nebulous diagnoses and pseudo-psychology begin flowing immediately. His ex-wife Isa (Diane Bathen) and her family speculate that his sexuality stems from childhood trauma; meanwhile, Pablo’s parents wildly claim he was not gay before marrying Isa.
What flows from the opening represents the impossibility of Pablo to establish any kind of new normal in his life and relationship with Francisco. The intense homophobia of the Guatemalan evangelical community, of which Pablo was once a part, quickly rears its head. He’s made a pariah in his religious community, told to step away from his job, and barred from seeing his two children. When he gets to court to settle the divorce and custody, Pablo gets accused of pedophilia. The pressure campaign forces him into a false choice between happiness with his family and self-respect as an out gay man.
The righteous indignation and bafflement of Bustamante in Temblores lands with a strong impact due in large part to the soulful, tortured performance by Olyslager. Pablo clearly thought coming out would make for the hardest part in his journey of self-discovery and assumed his privilege might insulate him from the fallout of his decision. He’s an honorable, amicable, and even quite virile man — not that these things matter when determining a person’s basic human rights and dignity! But when it comes to public treatment, Pablo still feels he can lay claim to some of the benefits afforded to men in a patriarchal, heteronormative society.
Lingering doubts about whether he can really justify leaving his entire old life behind for Francisco drive Pablo back into the arms of the church. They’re willing to take him back in, provided he offers sufficient oblation for the sin they believe he has committed. For the church, that means some unique variation on “conversion therapy.” Don’t expect Boy Erased, a condemnation of the practice through the eyes of someone who hoped the method could “cure” his homosexuality. Temblores finds more fertile psychological ground in exploring what might drive a man there after social pressures make him doubt the truth he’s chosen to live.
There’s something silly about Bustamante’s portrayal about the evangelical deprogramming process. It’s not laugh out loud funny, per se. But the irony of trying to turn gay men straight by making them take long group showers together in the nude as well as wrestle each other in their underwear is not lost on him. Bustamante recognizes the thin line between homophobia and homoeroticism, depicting it not so much to call out hypocrisy. (After all, that arises fairly organically from simply documenting the processes.) Rather, it’s to show how these porous boundaries can throw someone like Pablo into such debilitating uncertainty over what he actually wants.
Contrast this sequence with the most strikingly beautiful shot in Temblores – Pablo and Francisco laid out on their bed, spooning in the nude as magic hour lighting peeks in through the windows. It is beautiful, natural, tender. For a brief time, the camera sees what the Guatemalan society around them cannot. Sadly, it cannot last. But the golden hue lingers in our minds and puts additional urgency in the fight to make that loving embrace more than just a fleeting, flickering moment on a screen.