The majority of shots in Nuria Ibañez’s The Naked Room are static close-ups, often stifling and inelegantly framed, focused intently on the pained faces of damaged children. Composed of a series of individual interviews, shot entirely in the examination rooms of a Mexican hospital, the film applies subtle changes of perspective to each specific scenario, but the differences don’t matter much; whether the children are positioned in front of a concrete wall, in the shadow of drawn blinds, or lying prone in a hospital bed, the symbolic significance of their lives, the meager space in which they’re presented, is generally the same. Delivering on the promise of its title, what results is a sparse collection of semi-stories, each a raw slice of tragedy playing out without context or clarification, offering only glancing hints of what its subjects are experiencing.
The film’s performative space is a vacuum, a safe haven for sharing and confession, but the feeling of protective containment it engenders is clearly transitory. These are children whose everyday lives are short on moments of peace, who are riddled with passed-down traumas, absorbed from the tumultuous society they live in or the immediate chaos of their family lives. They have body issues, are uncomfortable with their sexuality or have suffered severe emotional duress. They’ve resorted to self-harm or been admitted for psychological disturbances, and on camera display excruciating fragility, deep sadness, and fleeting hints of rage. Yet, for the most part, what we’re shown are the moments that that come after anger, fatigued acceptance being the dominant emotion, a sense of resignation which makes much of this even harder to watch.
The Naked Room is mostly intent on capturing juvenile patients at their most defenseless, interviewed by an off-camera clinician who they hope can help them sort out the confusion of their feelings. Ibañez avoids exploitation by isolating each experience, making no effort to apply perspective, explain circumstances, or shape any story around these jagged revelations. At times reminiscent of Allan King’s Warrendale, the film never makes the mistake of inserting its subjects in any narrative framework, and by eschewing even basic B-roll footage ends up feeling even more stripped down than Frederick Wiseman’s patient inquisitions, yet nearly as complex overall. The cumulative effect is a portrait of a society as reflected by its most vulnerable members, minors beset by problems filtered down to them from above, and the idea of engaging these issues before they have a chance to perpetuate further cycles of misery.
This leaves us with piercing moments like the story of one boy—demonstrating glints of toughness, but still young enough to break down on camera—who’s been hospitalized after cutting himself with a plate shard, worn down by constant verbal abuse from his older brother. In any other context, the agonizing story he delivers might feel cheesy and manipulative, but the simple sight of this desperate child, crying out for the merest hint of affection from an unfeeling sibling, is crushingly direct. It’s a reminder of cinema’s inimitable power to invoke empathy, a humanist ideal that The Naked Room reduces to its barest, most potent form.