Desdemona: A Love Story may well be the most gorgeous looking film at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. Good or bad, consciously or not, it’s one of those judgments viewers make about an independent film: Does this thing have the polished look of a Hollywood studio product? Thanks to cinematographer- editor Philip Roy, Desdemona doesn’t look like a Hollywood film. It looks like an exquisitely crafted Hollywood film. Just look at this shot — that stunning, blood-red sunset recalls a haunting Edvard Munch background.
Yes, Desdemona is an exquisitely crafted Hollywood film whose slowness and obviousness are likely to make a viewer pinch himself to make sure he hasn’t fallen into a coma. Texas-born screenwriter-director Phillip Guzman wants to create a slow-burn, cross-border, romantic tragedy with noir-ish overtones and racial conflicts. It’s got lots of somber, doom-laden atmosphere, some intense acting (notably by Jorge Jimenez) and the kind of story and pacing that are designed to heighten our sense that everyone here is trapped by fate. Mostly, what it does is make a viewer fear that he’s trapped, too, and his own life is wasting away, minute by minute.
Gil Garcia (Jimenez) staggers into a church confessional, having slashed his wrists. Taking an awfully long time to bleed to death, he tells the priest (Texas actor Glenn Morshower), who doesn’t realize what’s happening, the back story that has led him here. As a child, Gil was dragged from Mexico to America by his father for a better life. But after his father is beaten to death for being immigrant scab labor, Gil is taken in and raised by the father of his basketball-hustling friend, Rod (Denton Blane Everett). When the father dies of cancer, the two young men make a desperate decision: They’ll kidnap a rich woman for ransom in order to pay for his funeral.
Simply knocking over a convenience store isn’t likely to garner the several thousand dollars the young men need. But they opt for a kidnapping partly because Gil has an ulterior motive. When his father took him from Mexico, Gil lost his childhood sweetheart, Desdemona (Cindy Vela) — who went on to marry a rich gringo. Gil wants to know whether Desdemona actually still loves him.
It’s the kind of plan that in movieland inevitably leads to several bad karmic twists. It’s also the kind of harebrained plan that sounds an awful lot like Season 8, Episode 4 of The Simpsons. (“Stage a fake kidnapping!” Homer says to Mr. Burns’ long-lost illegitimate son, Larry.) To be fair, these days, everything in life (or at least, everything on film and television) reminds one of The Simpsons. But my patience with Guzman’s writing and directing began to run out after, for instance, it’s made abundantly clear during a scene that the stepfather (Brad Maule) is dying. He coughs and wheezes and gasps for breath with an oxygen mask — all the while struggling to speak for what seems like 20 minutes. The viewer thinks, “Ooh, he’s going to die, I just wish he might do it sooner.”
We cut to a funeral parlor interior, a move that manages to be both far too telegraphed and far too late. So we get not one but two interminable death scenes — bleeding to death while delivering exposition (by now, the priest should have noticed Gil’s blood seeping under the door) and coughing to death while delivering exposition.
To recount the other failings of the script would be to reveal some of Desdemona‘s twists. Suffice it to say, everyone suffers. In order for this to happen, Mr. Guzman must make his hero something of a guilt-ridden, punching-bag masochist, and he must pull out a forgotten, minor plot point from the beginning of the film — apparently, all for the sake of demonstrating the ubiquity of racial hatred. And oh yes, to finish off the last character standing. Mustn’t let him escape an interminable death. That’s what fate means, doesn’t it?
Ironically, the undeniable gorgeousness of Desdemona may well make a viewer expect more from it — and therefore, feel let down all the more by it. Guzman is reportedly working on 2:22, a heist film with Val Kilmer and Gabriel Byrne. In movieland, heists are like kidnappings — they usually go wrong in some tragic or comic way. Let’s hope it’s just the heist and not the film.
Desdemona screens Monday at 10:30 p.m. at the Magnolia and Tuesday at 4 p.m. at NorthPark.