Who wouldn’t want a movie made about their own life? When Jose Pablo Estrada Torrescano goes to study film abroad, his fiery grandma, known only as Mamacita, demands he make a movie about her. Jose takes her up on the offer, which was more of a command. His film, “Mamacita,” starts as a vanity piece of this 95-year-old matriarch and business lady in Mexico. By the end of its brisk 75 minute run time, the piece morphs into something else. In Jose’s exploration of the larger-than-life Mamacita, he unearths some emotional wounds that, even after 95 years, still haven’t healed.
It’s easy to see why Mamacita would make a compelling subject. She’s a fabulous lady who built a beauty empire through sheer determination and force. In many ways, Mamacita represents the brand. She’s always caked in makeup, adorned with chunky jewelry and in fabulous frocks. Her personality is as big as her outfits as well. The film, made by her grandson, both admires and fears her with every shot. She radiates love, as long as love and adoration are being projected back to her.
The best parts of “Mamacita” are wrapped up in the small exchanges between all the people in the house. Mamacita insists to her workers that the fruit they had prepared has gone bad, but refuses to try it. Everyone around her eats the fruit and insists that it’s delicious. However, Mamacita stands firm and insists the fruit has gone bad. There’s a resigned weariness that the workers all convey in subtle looks. Each of Mamacita’s daughters also have specific, unspoken relationships to her. It’s great fun to watch the film and focus on the people on the fringes of the shot or in the background. There’s an expressiveness to everyone in the film that makes it come alive.
In telling Mamacita’s story, her grandson seeks to tear down the emotional walls of her experiences. The conclusion is powerful and affecting. Mamacita is a prickly subject that only becomes more prickly the more Jose climbs her emotional walls. What appears to be a mere vanity project comes together as something more interesting and emotional by the end. Mamacita wanted a film about herself to show how she built an empire out of nothing. What we get, in the end, is an examination of the “nothing” that Mamacita started with.
Even with the emotional breakthrough elicited from Mamacita, I found myself wanting more from the film. The beauty empire she built is discussed, but it would be interesting to learn more about the company and industry that she also worked so hard to build. The emotions are raw and real. However, the documentary veers close to navel gazing at times. How has the business empire affected Mamacita’s eight daughters? We see shots of them paraded around, almost as a business army. There’s a place in the documentary space for personal stories. However, with such a large array of colorful figures dancing around this fabulous matriarch, it would’ve been great to fully see more of those different perspectives.
The film ultimately breezes by and entertains throughout. It’s akin to spending a long afternoon at a friend’s house with his crazy family. There’s a lot going on and a lot of stories that come out in a very short amount of time. However, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Director Jose Pablo Estrada Torrescano shows initial promise in his debut feature. His acute eye notices some interesting dynamics in his relationship with his grandmother. It will be interesting to see where he goes in future projects that take place outside his familial home.