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A Desperate Mother Takes on Mexico’s Drug Cartels in La Civil

Photo: courtesy Zeitgiest Films.

The tale told in La Civil—a desperate mother’s search for her abducted daughter in Northern Mexico—is one that sounds on the surface compelling enough for an addicting thriller. But Belgian-Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai’s new feature, debuting in North American cinemas this week, is far, far more than simple generic fare. Scripted and shot in a deceptively economical style, acted to perfection by a galvanizing Arcelia Ramírez, and based on a true story, La Civil is a modern masterpiece of the low-key thriller and a substantive exploration of Mexico’s ongoing cartel problem.

Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta) applies makeup to Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez) in LA CIVIL.
Denisse Azpilcueta and Arcelia Ramírez in La Civil. Photo: Zeitgeist Films.

Ramírez plays a woman named Cielo who enjoys a close and loving relationship with her teen daughter, Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta). Off to meet a date, Laura disappears, and shortly, a teenage boy, barely older than Laura, orders Cielo to pay 150,000 pesos if she wants to see Laura again. Confused and distraught, Cielo turns to her ex-husband Gustavo (Ávaro Guerrero) for help, but their partial ransom goes haywire, only escalating the ire of Laura’s kidnappers. By the time Cielo contacts the authorities, any potential leads have gone cold.

Cielo, then, must take matters into her own hands. She begins her own investigation, surveilling the  cartel operatives and slowly working to gain the trust of an unconventional official, Lieutenant Lamarque (Jorge A. Jiménez). He agrees to help, but he has his own agenda, one which pulls Cielo deeper and deeper into the vast network of the cartel’s operations, a criminal enterprise with seemingly no boundaries and countless victims.

With little information, few resources, and nearly no one she can trust, Cielo’s investigation into her daughter’s disappearance seems doomed from the outset. While each new revelation impacts her emotions, Cielo remains motivated to find her daughter at any cost, even while each step forward takes her into increasingly intense and dangerous circumstances—a rapid-fire gun skirmish, a car bombing, a mortuary, a mass grave, a high-stakes confrontation, and, finally, an unpredictable climax and resolution.

Laura (Arcelia Ramírez) wears a ski mask in La Civil.
Arcelia Ramírez in La Civil. Photo: Zeitgeist Films.

In the hands of another filmmaker, Cielo’s quest might be treated as a Hollywoodized actioner, with a buff, svelte star leaping about, making threats, surviving torture, outgunning the villains, and then saving the day—and her daughter—to a rousing, triumphant score accompanying quick edits and slo-mo bullet ballets. You’ve seen hundreds of versions of that movie from the 1970s vigilante capers onwards. But Mihai, a Belgian-Romanian director collaborating with Mexican co-screenwriter Habacuc Antonio De Rosario, takes an entirely different tack in charting Cielo’s path from doting mother to vengeful detective.

The film is far better for it. There is, for one, no non-diegetic music of any sort in La Civil—just the quiet ambience of stealthy surveillance and the occasional awkward, hesitant dialogue of uncertain interrogation. The camera hews closely to Cielo’s perspective, in fact never diverging from it, so that the audience knows only what she does—no more, no less. None of the clichéd tropes of the genre figure at all, as Mihai aims instead for a slower-paced documentary realism.

That is not to say La Civil is without genuine suspense and heart-pounding thrills. Mihai’s film is in fact as effective as any thriller as Cielo pursues her quarry through the bodies that pile up in their wake. Mihai spares Cielo and viewers little in documenting the evils of the drug cartels whose long war tallies a body count—of journalists, citizens, investigators, criminals, and their victims—in the tens of thousands each year. Be forewarned, if you lack imagination: the visual evidence of the cartel’s crimes is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Cielo, though, is strong of constitution. While she is rightfully aggrieved by every horrific crime she encounters, she never loses track of her goal. A mother’s love and her desire to find her missing daughter at all costs are powerful forces indeed. As the quiet homemaker turned avenging activist, Ramírez, one of Mexico’s most popular and prolific film and television actors, charts her character’s increasing frustration and unyielding determination with a quiet ferocity, simmering until her emotions threaten to explode. Onscreen for nearly every minute of the film’s lengthy two-hour-plus runtime, Ramírez grounds La Civil in an intelligent emotional reality.

Although the film does not bill itself as a biopic or docudrama, exactly, Mihai acknowledges the story is based on that of a woman she met in 2015 when first researching the topic for a potential documentary. That Mexican housewife told Mihai “When I wake up in the morning, I want to kill or die.” She—her name was Miriam Rodriguez—had seen her 14-year-old daughter Karen abducted in 2012. Frustrated by the incompetence and corruption of law enforcement, she doggedly pursued the cartel responsible for her daughter’s disappearance and brought ten of their members to justice. The real-life story is a remarkable one, though it concludes in tragedy: on Mexico’s Mothers’ Day in 2017, she was murdered by gunmen who burst into her home and riddled her with bullets in revenge for her work against the cartel.

Miriam Rodriguez’ fierce determination and unflinching resolve to find her daughter is as inspiring a story as one can imagine. Although La Civil does not pretend to tell her exact tale, its inspiration is worth noting. Teodora Ana Mihai’s new feature is well worth your time: with an extraordinary performance by Arcelia Ramírez as Cielo and with a slow-burn documentary approach that perfectly serves its subject matter, La Civil lays bare the systemic evils of Mexico’s cartel war by presenting a mother’s quest for justice.

Zeitgeist Films announces the U.S. theatrical release of La Civil by Teodora Ana Mihai, opening on Friday, March 3 at Film Forum in New York City, followed by the Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles on Friday, March 17, and other cities. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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