The opening scene of Hari Sama’s This Is Not Berlin (Esto no es Berlin) is a portrait of toxic masculinity. A group of young boys are fighting one another in a dusty field. Presented in slow-motion, their punches and bloodied faces are exaggerated. In the center of the shot stands a still Carlos (a striking Xabiani Ponce de León), a boy whose soft features and long brown locks set him apart from the chaos around him. It’s no surprise he’s knocked out; he barely puts up a fight.
The punk-scored film that follows builds on the themes and visuals of Sama’s opening. What he’s created with This Is Not Berlin is an urgent and refreshing queer take on the coming-of-age genre that doubles as an intoxicating snapshot of Mexico’s countercultural scene in the late 80s.
It is Mexico in 1986 and 17 year-old Carlos is slowly finding his inner circle, these rabble-rousing guys who egg on rivals for after school brawls with taunts of “putos” (sissies, fags, pussies), to be wanting. His artistic and sensitive proclivities flare up when he and his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) nab an invite to an underground nightclub called The Azteca. Gera’s sister and her punk band are playing there and they begrudgingly bring the two boys along, warning them that it’s a one-time thing. What the pair find within those hallowed walls is a world that both find impossibly seductive.
The Azteca is a counter-cultural hub. It’s full of freaks and artists and musicians, and revolutionaries. The downstairs club looks like it could be an East Village dive bar (“Is this a gay bar?” they ask when they see two men openly kissing; “It’s an everything bar,” they’re told); the upstairs a kind of Mexican Warholian Factory. That’s where Carlos eventually ends up, enthralled by the free spirits that create radical art. Among them is Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro), who is drawn in by Carlos’ softness, slowly turning him into his muse. The Azteca becomes a safe haven for Carlos, a place where he can experiment with his body, his urges, his ambitions. His oft-lethargic mother (who’s self-medicating and all but absent at home) and his roughhousing schoolmates (who paint his desk chair pink one day after Carlos shaves the side of his head and begins wearing eyeliner) push him to embrace Nico’s queer, punk world. He even starts letting go of his close bond with Gera, who finds it harder to fit among those at The Azteca.
Sama’s period drama is most electric when it doubles as a kind of documentary of a bygone world. The performance happenings at Nico’s studio, captured in 8mm silent shots and neon-tinged montages scored to a punk-fueled soundtrack, is a window into a community that found the patriotic zeal of the impending World Cup taking over their city too pedestrian. The imperative to conform is what they most dislike. These artists and intellectuals (in themselves removed from the masses they so champion) rather spend their days discussing Patti Smith, Lacan, and German philosophy, using insights found there to push back against the bourgeois society they disdain.
The first time Carlos visits Nico’s studio, he’s treated to a live reading of 18th century French poetry delivered by a performance artist getting a blowjob by an equally naked young man. For a teen adrift at home and at school, these images spark newfound curiosities. Soon, that wide-eyed wonder turns to laconic insouciance as he eagerly begins taking part in these politically-engaged installations, stripping down and covering himself with the word “GAY” in red all over his body, for example, for a street-wide protest.
Sama’s film may cover familiar ground in this coming-of-age tale, but the more Carlos becomes a part of the Azteca world, the murkier his intents appear. Is he actually drawn to Nico, who so obviously pines for his lithe body? Is he finding strength in his newfound androgynous look? Is this new community a way to find or to lose himself?
The answers to these questions are not as clear-cut as they initially appear. Sama mines them, instead, for all their complexity, constructing a portrait of radical queer culture that refuses to be reduced to a coming-out parable. This is not Berlin, much like its title suggests, is a potent love letter to a Mexico at a crossroads; to a community eager to make its mark; and to young men struggling to find their place somewhere between the two.