The outstanding Mexican drama “Dos Estaciones” opens in the fields of Atotonilco de Alto, in Jalisco. Workers are harvesting agave for the tequila made in María’s (Teresa Sánchez) factory — she inherited it from her family — which has fallen on hard times. While the labor is tough, and the pay is little for the workers, María’s power in the community is weakening. As this potent film unfolds, she tries to save face — and her factory.
Director Juan Pablo González immerses viewers in the imposing María’s world. It is one he knows firsthand; the director/cowriter grew up in the region and his family worked in a factory like María’s. The authenticity is evident in every shot in “Dos Estaciones”—especially those that illustrate the process of making tequila — and that is what makes the film so atmospheric.
This trenchant, observant drama depicts María absorbing a series of body blows as employees leave and other troubles mount. Not only is there an agave crisis brought on by rival tequila companies as well as a fusarium plague, but other environmental concerns, such as flooding, also threaten the region. María is in so much debt, the only way she can stay afloat is to sell — something she adamantly refuses to do.
María tries to salvage her situation by hiring Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), a savvy and comely young woman she meets at a birthday party. Rafaela has business acumen, but she also — unknowingly — provides companionship for the lonely María. Rafaela gives María someone to depend on her, which provides María with some form of control, amid all her potential losses.
“Dos Estaciones” would be fine to focus entirely on María, but González shrewdly introduces another character for contrast. Tatín (Tatín Vera) is a self-made transgender woman who runs the salon in town where María gets her hair cut regularly. Watching Tatín counsel her mother on makeup or talk with Rafaela about her hair provides nice, warm, gentle moments that soften the film given the butch María’s harsher nature. And like María, Tatín is determined to live life on her own terms — something that becomes clear when María questions Tatín’s efforts to remodel her salon by taking out a business loan.
A subplot has Tatín meeting Fernando (José Galindo) in a casino and spending the night with him. Because the film wisely avoids any discussion of Tatín’s gender identity, this relationship is particularly welcome. Moreover, a scene late in the film of Tatín visiting various shops in the small town shows how accepted she is in the community. (Viewers can draw their own conclusions about how María is perceived.)
“Dos Estaciones” is notable for its subtlety and restraint. González does not rush the story or have the few big dramatic moments become too overwhelming or melodramatic. The film instead creates emotion by following María — she is often filmed from behind — to make viewers feel the weight on her back. She is frustrated when her truck won’t start, and smiles when she is able to do donuts in a field. She exacts revenge when she feels she is being betrayed, but also dances with Rafaela — leading, of course — to have a brief moment of pleasure.
Teresa Sánchez delivers a phenomenal performance as María by taking a less-is-more approach to portraying the character. One gripping scene shows María driving and growing impatient as a truck blocks her path. All of her expressions are caught entirely in the rearview mirror and reflection from the windshield and dashboard. Likewise, an extended shot illustrating the despair in María’s eyes as she experiences yet another setback is haunting. Sánchez imbues María with a weariness that she is trying to mask, and watching María come to terms with an increasingly more difficult reality is what makes this character study so riveting.
“Dos Estaciones” is also incredibly well filmed. There are many breathtaking shots of the fields and landscapes that convey both the beauty and the isolation of the region. One gorgeous sequence, set during a fireworks event, has María and Rafaela seen at times in silhouette. But González illuminates the two characters long enough to show how María looks at Rafaela with a quiet longing in her heart. It is a poignant moment between these two very different women, and quite different from a later scene where Rafaela silently expresses displeasure with something María says she has done, showing just who controls whom.
González has exhibited masterful control in his filmmaking. He has crafted a drama with the same care and attention that María employs when making a bottle of her tequila. “Dos Estaciones” is a remarkable achievement.
“Dos Estaciones” | Directed by Juan Pablo González | Opening September 9 at the IFC Center | Distributed by Cinema Guild