A teenage boy comes to terms with the death of his father while getting sucked into the shady side of Mexico’s manufacturing industry in The Box (La caja), which comes to this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after debuting at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
Directed by Lorenzo Vigas (From Afar), The Box is subtle and sure-handed but slow to reveal its ultimate contents; climactic scenes, which reveal the narrative to be more focused on internal growth as opposed to the external events that occur in the movie, will either win viewers over or turn them off.
The Box opens with teenage Hatzin (Hatzin Navarette) on a bus from Mexico City to the outskirts of Chihuahua to pick up the cremated remains of his estranged father, which are handed to him in a miniature steel coffin.
But a funny thing happens on his way back: he spots his father working on the streets of the city. Mario (Hernan Mendoza) insists the boy is confused, but he bears a striking resemblance to the ID card Hatzin was given along with the remains.
Despite Mario’s initial resistance, Hatzin sticks around and eventually wears the old man down. Left without much of a choice, Mario takes him under his wing and introduces him to his day job: as a shady underground recruiter for a large, unnamed manufacturing company.
North of the U.S. border, the cliché scene features Mexican immigrants looking for work fighting for the chance to hop in the back of a pickup truck and head off to a manual labor job for a day’s pay. South of the border, it’s a strange parallel scene as Mario takes a bus from town to town and cons potential employees into signing a long-term contract for minuscule wages at a dystopian factory out in the desert.
Hatzin’s moral compass is wide enough to feel comfortable lying to the potential recruits, but the truly dark underbelly of the manufacturing industry he finds himself working for begins to make itself apparent with news of missing employees and bodies dumped out in the desert. Despite developing a closer and closer relationship with the man who he insists is his father, the nature of their work begins to tear them apart.
There’s real beauty in The Box’s ambiguity: either Mario really is Hatzin’s father or he isn’t, and the film drops subtle hints along the course of the narrative to allow us to draw some conclusions. But whether Mario is actually Hatzin’s father soon becomes irrelevant: he’s a father figure, and one who takes advantage of Hatzin’s good nature and ultimately lets him down.
Bolstered by sandy-white cinematography amidst a stark Mexican landscape, The Box is a touching examination of father-son relationships and coming to terms with the ideal father one may have created in their heads.