In this coming-of-age film set in Mexico City in the 80s, 17-year-olds Carlos and Gera are on the cusp of adulthood. And when they’re invited to the coolest club in town, they’re suddenly thrust into the dizzying world of punk rock and drugs and unbridled sexuality, and everything changes, especially their friendship. This is Not Berlin is a paean to rebellious youth and the urge to find your tribe, seen through the eyes of an inquisitive young man. It’s an emotionally absorbing ride.
The film opens with a street fight. Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) and Gera (José Antonio Toledano) and their friends from school are duking it out with a rival school. But the two friends aren’t really interested in that kind of machismo and both come away from it unscathed. They head home to do what they usually do – hang out, sneak a smoke, steal Gera’s dad’s porn to rent to their friends, and look for more to their lives. But when Gera’s sister Rita’s (Ximena Romo) band can’t perform because their synthesizer is broken, Carlos steps in. He’s a whiz with electronics. And as a reward for his services, he and Gera are invited to the gig, which happens to be at a club that’s so outside of what the two boys have experienced, it’s intoxicating. And since Carlos is curious and really cute, the people there take to him and pull him into their crowd. It’s a very avant garde, very arty community full of artists and filmmakers and poets. And Carlos dives head first into it all. But he leaves Gera on the sidelines.
Carlos comes from a single mom family. And mom (Marina de Tavira, Roma) is mostly drugged out, in bed, letting Carlos take care of his younger brother. The only man in his life is his uncle who’s taught him about electronics and music. So when this newfound group of people invite him to join in their performance art protests about AIDS awareness in the streets and including him in films projected on the side of a stadium, he feels at home. But even he is aware that his place in the party is tenuous. The leader of the group Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro) has taken him under his wing, and it’s clear that he has a crush on Carlos that isn’t reciprocated. It’s Gera’s sister Rita, the Patty Smith quoting punk performer, who Carlos worships from afar. But eventually everything comes to a head when Gera shows up at the club trying to be a part of his old friend’s circle.
In some ways This is Not Berlin could be a continuation of Roma. The same actress plays the single mother. It’s a decade later and the oldest son is trying to figure out who he is with no help. (Sadly, Cleo is gone from the scene.) Director Hari Sama surrounds you in the exhilarating milieu of Club Azteca with its sexually liberated intellectual artists. It’s the beginnings of the gay liberation era, too, and the club definitely has that 80s gay club appeal for all kinds of people. At one point early on one of the boys asks, “Is this a gay bar?” And Rita tells them, “This is an everything bar.” It’s a place where the young can experiment with who they want to be. And the film is a sensitive look back at what made the director who he is. I highly recommend it to arty, foreign film lovers, particularly if you were a fan of Roma.