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‘The Amazing Catfish’ is an honest, straightforward weeper

‘The Amazing Catfish’ is an honest, straightforward weeper


The Amazing Catfish
Written and directed by Claudia Sainte-Luce
Mexico/France, 2013

It seems to this critic that the term “tearjerker” was once a perjorative, applied only to films that eschewed all honest attempts at drawing emotion from an audience. Today it seems that any film which is guaranteed to leave no dry eyes in the theater is labeled a tearjerker. Maybe too many dramas choose the manipulative route, or maybe today’s audiences are so cynical as to always feel that their tears are being jerked. Regardless, an occasional film is required as a reminder that there’s no shame in making a straightforward weeper. One such film, the Mexican drama The Amazing Catfish, has just arrived in American theaters.

Claudia (Ximena Ayala) has her lonely existence punctuated by a bout of appendicitis. During her stay in the hospital, she meets Martha (Lisa Owen), a single mother of four. When Claudia asks Martha what disease brings her to the hospital, Martha evades the question; in that moment the entire plot of the film will sprawl before the viewer’s eyes, as though laid out by a cinematic cartographer. Anyone who stays in the theater after that point, but who doesn’t want to watch a loving mother die a slow and painful death, has no excuse.

Yet for all of its predictability, The Amazing Catfish scores points for its realness and sincerity, even under unreal and insincere circumstances. Claudia ingratiates herself into Martha’s family with an ease and speed which could only happen in the movies, but there are also constant pauses, even within the climax of the film, to emphasize that she is an outsider looking in. Claudia has a nearly ridiculous natural skill with the children – daughter Wendy (Wendy Guillen) seems to be developing some hard-core issues, only for her problems to disappear after one conversation with Claudia – but the film never loses track of Claudia’s odd position in this family, either surrogate mother nor long-lost older sister.

AmazingCatfish_featuredMost of all, writer/director Claudia Sainte-Luce strives for as little sentimentality as possible. The first two-thirds of the film use only diogetic music, and the camera observes most the action from a medium distance, such that the audience is allowed to empathize as much or as little with the characters as they like. The children are allowed to express their pain and denial in ways that are selfish or even callous; during Martha’s most heart-rending moment in the entire film, her youngest child interrupts, asking her to keep it down as he tries to sleep.

The final scene of the movie, with a taped message from Martha to her children, is perhaps a bit much, edging the film toward tearjerker territory. In that moment Sainte-Luce even piles on some of the sentimental music that had been lacking from the preceding 80 minutes. But prior to that, Sainte-Luce shows an uncanny understanding of why these characters’ circumstances are sad. Compared with a typical tearjerker, which only wishes to understand what would most easily make its audience cry, The Amazing Catfish has an honesty that few English-language dramas this year can match.

-Mark Young