The oft-imitated Pulp Fiction endures to the tune of two decades at a minimum when taking in Days of Grace. It's not an imitation but the influence looms nonetheless. Of this charge, it is absolved. Setting your story across three World Cup tournaments was always going to be the flimsiest juxtaposition tactic assuming it in fact is the thematic anchor of the film. Instead the narrative cues are signaled by whichever game happens to be in earshot. For the sport's aficionados, they'll feel right at home given the sport’s noteworthy events are well seared into memory. Zidane’s head butt, Ronaldo’s two-goal redemption, and the vuvuzela all feature so, in lieu of numbered chapters, the tournaments become demarcation guides. As for the uninitiated, the year of the event can be heard whenever it is blaring from a TV set or a radio nearby. But the pretense of the gimmick is the plausible phenomenon that during the month-long event that is a FIFA World Cup, Mexico City, as with any other soccer-mad locality, experiences a dip in any routine activity impertinent to football—the title being no other than a reference to that lull period in crime rates.
I suppose “One cop. Two kidnappings. Three World Cups.” is what many a proposed tagline went like in the marketing sessions, and in short, this is what the plot entails. The tournaments of 2002, 2006, and 2010 constitute the timeframe of these quasi-connected stories explaining the logic behind consecutive tournaments in relative chronological proximity as opposed to, say, the 1970 and 1986 editions, both hosted in Mexico itself. Again, the ingenuity is in staging the film's events in a haphazardly-looking period to allow some subtleties to flourish. It is not a period when the Mexican team was enjoying particular success. In fact, it coincides with collective angst and guarded optimism kicking in for Mexicans. This can be gleaned from the knowledge that beginning in 2002, it has become a repeated pattern for Mexico to make it out of the first round before suffering an early and all too predictable exit in the immediate round. Like clockwork. Their final finish in 2014? You guessed it; another second round elimination.
In the 2002 thread a cop takes two young preadolescent boys to a secluded shack and what first transpires with sexual undertones soon becomes a showing of tough love. He sends them away sans clothes with the ultimatum that they are not to be seen dealing in drugs in his jurisdiction with the idea being that while the methods are not in line with the cop’s intention, in Mexico the authority does not operate with impunity so much as they do without accountability. Namely with its susceptibility to bribery. How then can we explain corruption at all levels that sees drug dealers able to target any police officer not on the take? One of the boys is Doroteo, who features in all three threads in various degrees while the cop in question is Lupe Esparza, an idealist hothead. He'd slowly get dragged into the murky grey area between the legal and criminal proxies.
In 2006, Doroteo, now an adolescent, has taken up boxing and is persuaded by a friend to help on a mysterious gig promising a generous payout using coercion. “We need you, man!” Peer pressure is a motherfucker, and one can't be seen letting their friends down. This is the first kidnapping. The next time we revisit the thread (the film cuts across the three timelines without announcement) Doroteo is seen at a hideout bonding with the captive over time. We get to view the action from the victim’s perspective in a stunning rendering, notably with the camera behind the meshed fabric and knit of burlap sacks and blindfolds. The aspect ratio changes here and is something I learned from other reviews.
The last thread in 2010 is the most confusing at first considering it also shows another kidnapping except from the side of the captive’s family. Doroteo’s sister is an au pair for the family and there is a lawyer, a mistress and former business ties to read into as implications and possible motives. Consider that the sister is trying to reach Doroteo with no luck and it's bound to throw your bearings off kilter at first. This segment is more subdued in terms of both stakes and stylings, but there is a beautiful slow motion sequence that defines the first ripple of drama inflicted on this family. The major cinematic technique here is shooting in extreme close-ups and using glass, mirrors, and even coffee as a reflective medium of the subjects. And it hearkens back to Tony Scott's Man on Fire both in visuals and subject matter but you can also witness some of Michael Mann's The Insider in wideshots that are obstructed by objects closer to the camera than the actors.
The film laces athletic achievement with progressive strides for a nation burdened with a prevailing defeatist attitude among its citizenry that no matter the diversity of excellence and noble exploits, in Mexico there is no escaping mediocrity nor its maladies. Let's face it. Hugo Sanchez, Rafael Marquez, Dolores del Río, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Salma Hayek all have one thing in common. In order to break the glass ceiling of your own field, you must get out of Mexico first. Unless you run with El Chapo. This isn't a knock on Mexico but knowing a few Mexicans it is telling that the film echoes the prevailing sentiment that it is a fruitless endeavor to root for a Mexican team that will in any event inevitably get eliminated under frustrating circumstances. The perennial tease in a first round qualification being a guaranteed conclusion with anything afterwards as a nail biter.
From a glance the film suffers not so much from poor execution than a weak narrative particularly in the final third. There goes my credibility one football reference at a go. The first hour brings stellar camera work with one ambitious sequence from 2002 where the camera starts with a gunfight at street level, ascends via crane into the window of a second-floor apartment, and out another before rejoining the shootout on another street. So there is even some Noé. Another scene during a raid on a drug warehouse fronting as a butcher shop is filmed from the point of view of a scope on a gun. Truly impactful moments regrettably all crammed in a slow first hour that is by no means a tedious slog, yes, but there may be a method to the madness.
This is an unintentional reflection of the sparse second half schedule of a World Cup when half the teams are eliminated and there are longer breaks between games and when contestants play it safe. Maybe the film is being meta in ascribing a visual style and appropriate tones to each corresponding year making the trio of narratives distinct within the film. A film within a film. There is legitimacy to revisionist consideration and Days of Grace is perhaps better than my immediate reception. For example at one point a door bell rings in 2006 but is answered in 2002. A crackdown on the same hideout taking place at different times drives the suspense to obscene levels. Bits of the film will remind you of City of God with a stunning 360 time lapse of a room between two segments and Traffic's use of sun-baked yellows in one segment. And finally, a finger in 2006 is severed while another is delivered in 2010. And so on. And the film is rich with character stocks that may or may not congeal into symbols of Mexican history, social and economic issues and cultural phenomenon. What I’d first felt was an uneven balance or structure could also eventually prove a catalog of shooting techniques, cinematic tastes and trends according to the year shown even if those don't signify the time those techniques were introduced. But foremost Days of Grace is an uncanny sports film without typifying itself in the expected tropes of the genre. For that it is an unwitting success.