Part of the London Film Festival’s 2022 lineup, Writer/Director Natalia López Gallardo’s Berlinale Silver Bear Jury Prize-winning debut Robe of Gems (Manto de Gemas) strikes with a distinct portrayal of modern-day Mexico and the complexities faced by the country and those who call it home. Her film is a sensory experience where flashes of violence punctuate dreamlike sounds of rural life and shots of the rugged landscape. As Gallardo emphasises in our interview, she purposely didn’t set out with the intention of delivering a statement on the political or social climate of Mexico, but as we follow the lives of the three women whose individual stories are so delicately painted, an overall frame of corruption, violence and hideous disparities are inevitably felt. With a delicate mix of both professional and non-professional actors, Robe of Gems depicts lives brought together by tragedy but all more profoundly intertwined through a shared trauma which is palpable throughout. Following its screenings at LFF we spoke to Gallardo about the irresistible pull she felt to move from editing into writing and directing, why she kept the script from her actors and how intuition guided the form and structure of this atmospheric manifestation of an unconscious accumulation of impotence, fear and guilt.
– The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.
This is your debut feature and you come from a prestigious editing background, what made you want to move into writing and directing?
I think that editing is a great school because it’s a very analytical and cerebral kind of work. You have to really analyse the material several times and so you think a lot about the language and about the way film is constructed and why. You take the idea that shots are not always enough for their own individual existence but rather part of a larger system so you always think about the construction. I think the objective of cinema is to create ideas, literature is made to create images but cinema is for ideas.
I don’t think it’s a desire to make a film, it’s not a want to make a film, it has to be a need. A strong overwhelming need because it’s such a huge enterprise to make a film and to compromise yourself for years to the creation from zero. At some point, I felt that call and that need. I love editing. I don’t want to do it anymore because it takes up so much time and with so much involvement on my side, and I felt the call to write and direct. I started with something that is very near to me and has been for the last 15 years since we moved to the countryside in Mexico.
One of the most spectacular things for me is this beautiful pace you’ve created that is quite slow with these powerful and shocking moments of violence. How do you go about threading that balance?
As this is my first film, I’m discovering my own method which I think is unique to all directors. For me, writing was really hard, it was like climbing Everest. It was a process of surrendering many, many times. I believe that you construct a film by layers. You don’t have the film in the writing. You don’t have the film when you imagine the filming inside of you. You don’t have the film until the end when the film is shared with others and you realise the film. So you end up constructing layers on top of each other so it’s an intuition and a revelation process and so the pacing of the film is something I found in the process.
I didn’t have the means intellectually inside of me to create a discourse or to propose some solution. I really wanted to approach it from another dimension that was much more abstract.
At the beginning, I had the desire of a form somehow, and I felt the form of the film, the aesthetic and a little of the content of it. But I didn’t know how I was going to pace the stillness and the violence. I didn’t want to make a political statement or a social statement. I didn’t have the means intellectually inside of me to create a discourse or to propose some solution. I really wanted to approach it from another dimension that was much more abstract and was much more related to the wounds that we all share. I didn’t want to make a film about the violence itself.
There’s an overall story of shared trauma but the manner in which you outline each woman’s individual journey is impressive, was this more intuitive as well?
From the beginning it was a film with many characters. In the construction of the film it was difficult to find the equilibrium between that many characters and their lives so I ended up leaving a lot of things behind in the process. In the script the characters were a lot more developed and scenes were more complex and wider. I was looking for the essence of each character and each line and what they have to give to the entire film.
I wanted talk about the cinematography and the choice of wide shots and framing which focuses on the backs of people’s heads rather than their faces, what informed that approach?
When I decided to talk about a shared wound in Mexico it is a wound based in the spiritual and one which is going to last for generations. I wrote the film with this in my head and was constructing atmospheres more than situations. This was my guide, talking about something really abstract and I realised the atmosphere was to lead the narration and the cinematic experience. We are very attached to a system that is based in narrative but I think that cinema is about this experience that you live with your body. You live in the present with the body and each moment represents and has a particular meaning for the body. I think the body is the only one who really experiences the present. The mind is in another place. So based on that idea that cinema is an experience, I find narrative is only a part of the whole universe of the cinematic world. So it was very important for me to trust all the elements of language. To trust in the framing, to trust the movement of the camera, of the light and especially the sound because sound is a really noble element. We perceive reality, physical reality and being in the world through sound. It is where the imagination begins.
We are very attached to a system that is based in narrative but I think that cinema is about this experience that you live with your body.
The situation in Mexico has so many layers. I couldn’t confront this from a direct view. I had to approach from the side or through sound to really deal with the complexity. When you are in a dark place, all of your senses start and your imagination engine starts when you cannot see. It was very important for me to see such a complex thing from behind. I had to approach from the side or through sound to really deal with the complexity. It isn’t a social problem or anthropological or spiritual, it is everything.
Speaking about the importance of sound, what was your process for building the film’s rich sound design?
I had a great creative partner in post production, Thomas Becka, a French sound designer who lives and works in Mexico and I was really able to materialise my intuitions with sound with him. Sound was very prominent right from the start of the film. I started to write sound, what I heard when imagining the film in every scene through time. Sound was so important to me right through the film, during shooting the crew got annoyed with me taking so much time to record the sound at the end of the scenes as they were worried we were losing precious time. At every stage I was recording more and more sound and in the edit, I realised ambients needed changing and I was working on the layers throughout all of the process from the writing to the last day of mixing. I live in the countryside where a lot of the actors live and I was constantly able to go out and record more.
How did you find your cast and then prepare them for their roles? Do you work directly with scenes from the script?
They are a mix of both professional and non-professional. Isabel is a well-known TV actress who has been making more and more films over the past decade. The son of the commander has just launched into acting but the rest are non-professional. I work very individually with each one. Casting is not to find the best performer but to find the best person to open up and to feel comfortable with what we are doing. This is a real process for the director and a long process. I drove from town to town for months and the relationship with each one was very particular. It was a trust-based relationship.
There is a very rehearsed idea of Latin America and it is very important to deconstruct those ideas.
I didn’t give the script to any of the actors, not to anyone. I think that the written word is too strong, I believe in a more oral relationship with the actors because when you talk you communicate with all your body, you’re making gestures and you can talk about subtle things. If an actor who has never acted before reads the script they can feel that sadness which might come across too strongly and it becomes an interpretation of the work more than the experience or the connection.
I wanted to ask about the choice of colours and grading in the film, there is a telling lack of the bright vibrancy we might expect to find in Mexico, it’s noticeable.
At the very beginning I didn’t know where to start, there were some ideas and some rules and I was being asked what the palette was going to be so I made decisions and started constructing upon that base. I knew I wanted to embed the landscape and the characters so that you don’t feel the limits between them and the territory. So if the space I chose was too charged with elements of colours then my initial mission would be too difficult. I chose empty, flat spaces, monochromatic so we could place those characters there and build the layers. As the film started to take shape with that layer on the base we then added more elements to this. There is a very rehearsed idea of Latin America and it is very important to deconstruct those ideas. We are in a time of deconstruction of legacies and of tropes so I feel it is important to approach things with no preconceptions and try to re-write the meaning of things.
With Robe of Gems out there now, what are you working on next?
I’m just starting on another film, it’s more the effervescence of it inside me, I have started to read texts from Santa Teresa de la Cruz, this middle-age scholastic mystic which I have been mixing with a very contemporary theme that is still very abstract. I want to start the funding soon as it takes so long so we will see what happens.