Inspired by true events tabloids went wild over, the Mexican drama “Bleak Street” centers on a crime involving two prostitutes, two Mini-Estrella wrestlers and a robbery scheme gone disastrously wrong. Veteran director Arturo Ripstein creates an immersing, desolate setting and fills it with beautiful imagery. But the movie, which lacks rich characterizations and emotional depth, is too lurid.
Ripstein (“Deep Crimson”) makes dark, unsentimental films about people diminished and warped by circumstance. Inspired by Luis Bunuel (his mentor in the 1960s) and bringing to mind the work of Lynch and Fellini, his movies combine realist concerns with surreal, perverse and carnivalesque ingredients.
Written by regular Ripstein collaborator Paz Alicia Garciadiego, the story transpires in Mexico City in a world of shadowy alleys, run-down motels, seedy bars and cramped dwellings whose inhabitants prefer unhappy relationships to loneliness. Women, men, the elderly and children are exploited. Everyone appears passed over by the dispensers of fortune.
The primary characters are two middle-aged prostitutes, each unable to bring in what she earned when younger. Dora (Nora Velazquez) has a cross-dressing husband (Alejandro Suarez) and a rebellious teenage daughter (Greta Cervantes), neither of whom she displays much love for. Adela (Patricia Reyes Spindola) lives with her elderly mother, whom she treats cruelly.
The prostitutes decide to rob clients by drugging their drinks with eye drops and stealing their money. Their chosen victims are Little Death (Juan Francisco Longoria) and Little AK-47 (Guillermo Lopez) — masked twins who wrestle in lucha libre’s Mini-Estrella (little people) division. When the women neglect to consider the smallness of the men when drugging them, tragedy results.
Ripstein produces a mood-rich atmosphere. Alejandro Cantu’s black-and-white cinematography blends cynical noir with slightly mythic beauty. The absence of a hope-in-the-distance skyline completely confines viewers in the hard-luck universe the characters seem to view as their fate. There’s some humor, too: A scene in which the prostitutes reminisce about the good old days, when they had lots of johns to rob, stands out.
But the characters aren’t developed beyond the surface, even though there are a few signs of their feelings: sadness on the actresses’ faces, or the sight of the tiny masked wrestlers in exploitive costume, treating their sport dead-seriously.
Ultimately, though, we learn little about these sorry souls or the bonds they purportedly share. The tragedy of what befalls them doesn’t resonate.
By failing to provide an adequate picture of the humanity at stake, the movie shapes up as a superficial affair. While consistently intriguing, it appeals foremost to perverse curiosity and leaves us, deeper down, unmoved.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Patricia Reyes Spindola, Nora Velazquez, Juan Francisco Longoria, Guillermo Lopez
Written by: Paz Alicia Garciadiego
Directed by: Arturo Ripstein
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes