Recap: The mother of a missing girl can’t stop, won’t stop in harrowing thriller ‘La Civil’

Tens of thousands of people have disappeared in Mexico as a result of the ongoing drug war. This horrible statistic has inevitably influenced the films made in or about the country. Among them, Romanian writer-director Teodora Mihai’s quintessential, if harrowing, thriller La Civil (Spanish for The Civilian) shocks the system for the moral grays of a story about an everyday human invading the world most unthinkable abyss.

Our guide into this grim and all-too-mundane reality is Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez), a housewife in northern Mexico whose teenage daughter goes missing. Her merciless captors soon demand ransom, but even after Cielo and her estranged husband comply as best they can, the young girl does not return home.

The crushing powerlessness gives rise to an agonizing fearlessness in the heartbroken mother. First, with no support from the authorities, she launches her own dangerous investigation into the criminal organization that controls her town. When her efforts catch the attention of a military official (Jorge A. Jimenez), Cielo, now wearing a bulletproof vest, witnesses ruthless violence in the name of justice.

But rather than exploit her troubled mission for a Taken-style revenge spectacle, the social social drama Verité sees Cielo’s determination to find answers not as sheer courage, but as a tragic, irreplaceable lack of concern for her own safety. She would lose her life first than let her child’s abusers get away with it.

An actor with an extensive resume including popular soap operas, Ramírez conjures up an amazing, career-best performance so intensely laced with devastating rage and unfathomable anguish; it constantly knocks out anyone watching. Cielo undergoes an agonizing transformation of the soul, which Ramírez portrays both in her body language and by making us realize that regardless of the outcome of her devastating quest, this woman will never be who she was before the nightmare began.

Executive Producer of international writers such as the Dardenne brothers and Cristian Mungiu, “La Civil” conveys an unflinching realism that is alongside Fernanda Valadez’s “Identifying Features” and Natalia Beristáin’s recently released “Noise”.

Mihai originally pursued a documentary film project in Mexico, but practical and safety obstacles convinced her to turn to fiction, inspired by the real-life case of Miriam Rodríguez, on which the character of Cielo is based. The filmmaker’s hiring of Mexican writer Habacuc Antonio De Rosario to co-write the screenplay likely helped ensure nuanced reflection and avoid tainting it with a simplistic, judgmental outsider’s view.

In Cielo’s compromised position, as she is involuntarily privy to the extent of the ingrained corruption and intimidation around her, Mihai conveys an overwhelming, almost inescapable desperation. This raw vibe is complemented by the tension in the viscerally in-the-moment cinematography of Marius Panduru (Romanian director Radu Jude’s regular cinematographer), who only offers a small glimmer of hope in the film’s ambiguous closing shot.

Towards the end of Cielo’s ordeal, she finds herself confronting the mother of one of the young men responsible for her daughter’s kidnapping. Her counterpart, also in need, cannot imagine why her son should get into trouble. Two mothers, across the street, both victims of a society marred by poverty and impunity and a government that cannot solve either.

‘La Civil’

In Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Duration: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Play: Lammle Royal, West Los Angeles; Lammle Glendale

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