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El Hijo de Hernández, an FAU Student’s feature film, is a surreal, experimental experience

rsz_el_hijo_de_hernández_official_posterThe simple question — “aren’t you the son of Hernández?” — repeated throughout the film, El Hijo de Hernández sets the stage for a very strange film experience.

While the film begins both figuratively and literally on a clear set of tracks, it very quickly goes off the rails.

What seems like a simple plot soon turns into a surreal ride that turns traditional film narrative structures on their heads.

This debut film from Lorenzo M. Ponce de León, a senior multimedia journalism and Spanish major, premiered on Friday, April 12, at noon, at the Living Room Theater.

Miguel, portrayed by professional Spanish actor Juan Penalva, is first seen walking alone on a set of train tracks.

All he has to his name is a hat, a suitcase, and a playbook he’s claimed to have read over again and again.

As he reaches an abandoned train station, Miguel encounters three mysterious figures — a man with a mug of hot maté in his hands, a girl with a motor mouth, and a commanding, authoritative woman — each insisting that Miguel is the son of Hernández, whoever that may be.

He also encounters a desert police woman determined to book him for stepping on sand, and a German tourist who, depending on who he asks, is a whore or a former movie star. Or both.

In addition, the characters repeatedly refer to a town that they all seem to live in, even though it is never seen by the audience or Miguel.

The town is regarded with superstitious awe, supported by dialogue from characters claiming that those who escape from it are always, one way or another, drawn back to it.

This casts a new light on Miguel. Is he actually just a random passerby, or is there something greater at work here?

This feeling of confusion and mystery keeps the audience engrossed. It may not be easy to follow, but it makes the audience want to know: just who is Hernández? What’s Miguel got to do with anything? What makes this town so powerful?

It’s the need for these questions to be answered that keeps the audience following along.

Penalva provides the strongest performance throughout the film out of the whole cast. We feel for his character.

This is not a character who is actively seeking answers to the questions that surround his situation. Rather, he does what a lot of people would do in his situation — try to find the quickest way out and back to his life.

His banter with his fellow castmates is one of the highlights of the film, providing some nice comedy to follow the seriousness of some of the more philosophical scenes.

As he starts to descend further into the Lovecraftian-style madness of the world around him, we sympathize even further, and want to see things work out well for him — or, at least, to see him catch a break.

Hernández is definitely an experimental film. During sequences in the train station, the film flickers in and out of distorted colors and flashes strange images involving what appear to be destroyed buildings and dead people, among other things.

It does not shy away from strange and downright creepy visuals, each making what could be an average scene twice as engrossing and intriguing.

There is also a moment within the film where the plot takes a break for a music video starring Miguel, singing the 2010 Latin Grammy-nominated song by the band El Cuarteto de Nos, fittingly titled “El Hijo de Hernández.”

While it may bring the story to a halt for a few minutes, it’s a catchy song that sounds similar to how Pink Floyd would if it was a Latin rock band.

Talk of revolution pops up now and again throughout the film. Miguel talks a lot about how corrupt the capital is, how the government is responsible for the lack of trains coming to the town-or any town, and so on.

It seems to be less for the plot and more to develop the characters who discuss it, showing the difference between those who support drastic change and those who prefer the status quo.

Parts of the film appear to have a theatrical influence as well. The start of the film, with Miguel waiting for the train with the man with the maté, has shades of the classic play Waiting for Godot.

The characters are waiting for a train that should be arriving but isn’t, like how the characters in Godot are waiting for a man who should be meeting them but hasn’t.

Similarly, the sets are small, static areas: a train station, a desert, a cave. There are usually two people per scene, simply chatting with each other and having a back and forth, and even with multiple people in one scene, it’s usually a focus between Miguel and one other character.

These are all theatrical conventions, and it is extremely easy to imagine Hernández as a filmed play rather than a movie due to them.

The film falters in two departments. First off, there is a lot to take in and little time to do so, with the film running a little under an hour and a half.

While there’s fun to be had in trying to keep an eye out for the random visuals, they’re so quick that they could almost be subliminal.

The audience is expected to both watch out for those images and pay attention to the ever-complicating plot, creating conflicting priorities for the audience if they aren’t used to this kind of film.

The ending of the film is also problematic. While the film has supernatural elements from the start — the town being the most prominent of them — these elements were more subdued, giving the movie an eerie feeling without overwhelming the characters and plot.

The elements start becoming more and more obvious as the film nears its end, building up to what the filmmakers obviously hoped to be a shocking reveal about Miguel’s past and the true nature of the setting.

However, it comes off as an ending worthy of The Twilight Zone, which is not a bad thing. The ending just is not worthy of the kind of build-up it received.

El Hijo de Hernández is not an average film by any stretch of the imagination. It has its fair share of odd moments, and it delves heavily into Miguel’s identity crisis and how he relates to each character.

Despite this, we never do learn who Hernández is — though the film provides some hints, the validity of which is left up to audience interpretation.

We never really figure out why there are characters like the German film star or the desert police woman, and the film never gives a concrete reason for the random image flashes.

However, all in all, withholding answers from the audience works in the film’s favor, providing an atmosphere that leaves the audience both confused and wanting for more.

Even if we don’t get the answers in the end, the journey to that end made up for it. With Hernández, Ponce de León is off to an excellent start to what should be an illustrious film career.

Final grade: 90 percent. The film is a fun treat in surrealism and takes a lot of risks that mostly work out in the end. However, despite an excellent lead performance and an engrossing atmosphere, the poor ending and its conflicting desires for its audience keep it from being a truly great film.

For more information on the film, including dates for future screenings, visit https://www.facebook.com/elhijodehernandezfilm 

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