Watching the near-mystical images that litter Mexican-born Nicolás Pereda’s doc/narrative hybrid Summer of Goliath, it becomes far easier to pick out the innovators that have paved the way for Pereda than it is to locate the distinction between what is real and what is narratively structured. Kiarastomi’s translucent border between production and product can be seen everywhere; the sumptuous, often breathtaking view of nature seems clearly indebted to early Apichatpong Weerasethakul (think Mysterious Object at Noon) and, to a far lesser degree, Lisandro Alonso. Jia Zhang-ke surely figures in here as well, but only in theory, seeing as Pereda’s film, which weaves together scattered pieces of lives lived in Huilotepec, Mexico, focuses on things more instinctual and natural on a smaller scale, rather than the forge of modernity and capitalism being played out amongst demolished factories and five-star hotels.
The enduring tribulations that come with making a living, however, are a central factor in the lives of the people of Huilotepec. The fifth film from Pereda, who turns 29 this year, Summer of Goliath opens on an interview between two siblings, one of which garnered the nickname “Goliath” after he supposedly murdered his girlfriend in his own bed. From this, it might be surmised that Pereda is playing off of Edward Yang’s seminal A Brighter Summer Day, but the focus quickly switches to Teresa (Pereda regular Teresa Sanchez) and her dullard son, Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez, another regular). Though she spends a great deal of her time cursing and pining for her ex-husband, Teresa’s main concern is locating a good job for Gabino, who wastes his days hassling locals as a soldier and attempting to hook up with various women.
As one might surmise, there’s very little of a concise plot to be found here, but the overall result is invigorating and even haunting, especially in its final moments. As ideas about performance inescapably factor into a film like this, it’s great to see that the high peak of Pereda’s film comes in the form of two warm and hilarious scenes wherein two separate people are instructed on how to read a short letter aloud. At another point, Gabino rehearses his lines for a party scene with his costar right before the scene itself unfolds.
Pereda shows nothing short of immense promise here, especially in his enigmatic framing and collaborative effort with his regular DP, Alejandro Colonado. Nevertheless, there’s a lack of confidence and fluidity in the director that distances him from the same sort of attention that someone like Miguel Gomes, who obviously shares many of Pereda’s influences, has garnered as of late. To highlight his cinematic preoccupations, Pereda, who also took on the roles of writer, editor, and producer for the production, sometimes blurs the central action of a scene to focus on a blade of grass or a hanging vine. Moments like this feel more like on-the-nose stunts than natural parts of this unique portrait of rural Mexico and halts Summer of Goliath from entering the sublime.
What I remember from the film is not the teetering scales of narrative and reality, but those sudden moments of alluring mystery and intimacy, such as the 16-year-old “Goliath” fooling around and taking gulps from a bottle of beer with his brothers. Holding his camera on such simple pleasures of life surviving under a palpable cloak of dread shows that Pereda could very easily be in league with those cinematic titans he reveres, but more importantly, highlights the personal choices and singular ideas that might eventually separate him from them.