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A Kingdom Crumbles in ‘Northern Skies over Empty Space”

There’s nothing new: the mesquite and dust will stay the same once we’ll vanish from the desert. A blast (or the edge of a knife, or a lie, or a fire) will pierce through the air and sparkle a hasty but inevitable ending, as everything else ever created by men.

After Semana Santa (2015) and The Good Girls (2018)—both unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival—Mexican director Alejandra Márquez Abella screened her latest, Northern Skies Over Empty Space, in the Panorama section of the 2022 Berlinale. Borrowing tropes from the western genre, the movie questions and disarms several hegemonic notions, from patriarchy to masculinity, as well as cinematic forms.

The view of the northern Mexican ranch is seen through Rosa’s (Paloma Petra) ever-alert eyes; she is the housekeeper and field manager, and the air above her crackles with danger. She’s the one who knows and watches the land, but this belongs to an old hunter named Reynaldo (Gerardo Trejoluna), who is adored by other men and revered as the ultimate boss of this little Kingdom, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Northern Skies was inspired by the real-life story of a businessman who defended his ranch from criminals, a narrative that was widely praised by the media at the time, and celebrated as a heroic act.

What, however, is the price of heroism? Is it one worth paying? And on what principles is masculinity even based? The movie disputes the canon and the ties that bind these tense atmospheres by juxtaposing the warmth of the fields with a haunting soundtrack. By building a sequence that unspools like a kaleidoscope of repeated moments, Marquez’ directing and Claudia Becerril’s cinematography create unbearably tense moments where Don Rey and Rosa’s power relationship begins to crumble.

It is not surprising that a story that took place along the border between Mexico and the US should boast so many western cinematic themes. The identity and social conflicts this side of Mexico are very specific; the Northerners boast about being “self-made”. In a hot and infertile land, their settlers founded villages that became industrial or cattle cities. And the region is close to the United States, a country that glorifies cowboys and turns them into heroes through reverse shots that anticipate duels. But the many animals dotting the film, (like goats, toads and cows, often framed in tight shots) seem oblivious to the values embraced by the main—human— characters. When the villain arrives in his truck, ruining a family celebration, borders begin to blur, like those keeping bosses and employees apart.

Unsurprisingly, recurring tropes in Mexican cinema stand out, such as family or drug-related violence. But a more careful reading shows that the film also questions the representations of that cinematic hegemony. Márquez Abella is well-known in Mexico for speaking up about the hegemony of the male gaze over the feminine. Unlike other movies that exploit the female body in order to codify the machismo, Northern Skies points to the fragility at the heart of the macho dogma: a hunter with poor eyesight, an heir with no interest in the legacy, a reign to be served and protected. While other directors choose to give female domestic workers an almost ornamental role, here Rosa owns her voice, intuition, and gaze, even though her employers have her dressed in a uniform and talk about her as if she wasn’t there. She is a character with lights and shadows who doesn’t aspire to be like family. Her affections and loyalties give her a complexity far removed from stereotypical polarizations.

When the image breaks up into parts and we face another decisive moment, it’s the bond between Rosa and Rey that prevails. Is it even possible for them to have a connection stronger than blood? How far can a man go to defend his honor? Every certainty will shatter in the northern hollow. A blast will pierce the air while insects and mesquite will witness new endings.