La Mala Noche is an under-the-radar narrative premiering at SXSW this year, and with its heavy subject matter it’s easy to see why it would appeal to a niche audience. It follows the story of a beautiful woman named Dana (Noëlle Schönwald), a prostitute working as part of a sex trafficking ring in Ecuador. It’s not the kind of lighthearted headliner one sees making a buzz in the festival circuit, neither is it an up-in-arms documentary, the likes of which we’ve seen already. However, it aims to focus on the character at hand and explore the issues she’s affected by. It’s hard to review in some ways — is it just powerful because of its subject matter, or has it been captured in a new way? I’d say a little more of the former than the latter, but I’m glad I was able to see and think about this.
La Mala Noche
Director: Gabriela Calvache
Release date: March 9, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)
La Mala Noche (The Longest Night) is a brothel and its leader, a twisted, power-crazed man named Nelson (Jaime Tamariz), holds many women in his thrall as part of his burgeoning empire. Dana is forced to surrender her income to him, in exchange for being able to work freely between clients. However, recent developments, such as her young daughter’s illness and her own percolating drug addiction, mean that she’s behind on her payments. This spells trouble, and she’s soon being threatened and pursued by Nelson’s hitmen.
The most devastating part of this picture is the fact that children are involved: an innocent girl of eight is pulled off a nearby beach and kidnapped by the ring. It’s not initially clear what her connection to Dana is — I thought that she might have been an estranged daughter — but when Dana spots her in the brothel she knows that she has to intervene. I was moved, enraged, and sickened to think about what might have happened to her, and it’s clear that the film was created as a reaction to the reality of global child trafficking. The point is that it could be happening anywhere, right under our noses, and we’d be none the wiser were it not for films like this.
For Dana, it’s a lonely, isolated existence, and by bringing together narrative elements and (theory alert) traductive realism, a form of documentary that focuses largely on an individual at a personal level, Gabriela Cavlache aims to bring a microscope to her life and examine her internal life — how she thinks, what she feels. I saw echoes of Andrea Arnold’s films (Fish Tank is one that jumped out at me), in that it focused on an underprivileged female protagonist who didn’t ask for the life she lives, forced to try to make ends meet. I felt as though it was filmed in a similar way, often with the camera on a dolly tracking her from behind, in order to align us with her point of view.
As a Mexican-Ecuadorian production, the film had me expecting something similar to Almodovar’s work, and in a way there were echoes of Volver — and I was most surprised by the thriller element of this picture. I’m really pleased that Gabriela Calvache was able to take directing the picture into her own hands: she is able to get to the heart of the issues of sex trafficking and to frame the central character in such a way that I had deep sympathy for her.
Characters are, for the most part, three-dimensional. Julian (Cristian Mercado), is one of Dana’s clients, but soon shows a real affection for her and a desire to help. But as always, it’s complicated: it should be a monetary transaction between the two without any attachment. Not only that, but he is an esteemed pediatrician in the neighborhood with a wife and daughter: he’s only a hero insofar as he does right by Dana, while at the same time he’s avoiding his familial responsibility, cheating on his wife, and healing people by day while leading a dishonest side to his life.
I feel as though Dana’s life could have been explained a bit more, but in some ways it’s not necessary. Calvache explained in the publicity material that she worked through seven drafts of the film before she settled on the final version, earlier screenplays incorporating her backstory. To her, it was more about the global crisis of human trafficking — an industry that affects millions of people. As she mentioned when discussing her statement of intent:
“nowadays there are approximately twenty-one million people who are the victim of human trafficking worldwide, which is to say that there are more slaves today than in the history of humanity… Human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is, at the time, the most widespread form. However, every year human trafficking, with other purposes, increases.”
While I feel that this was a very noble reason to go ahead and direct the feature, since it broaches such a prevalent topic, I felt as if the film could have had a central character that was more connected with the world around her in order to give us a little more context. I have no doubt that it will do well in the arthouse sphere, but beyond that I think it’s a question of distribution. It will only concern the average Joe if the character could relate to them somehow, if it’s seen as a part of their world.
What would have made this picture even more impactful would have been a greater exploration of the issue of sex trafficking as an industry. It would have been beneficial to get a sense of scale, for example showing how many people might be affected in Ecuador alone, before moving on to other issues. With Dana being so isolated, it’s difficult to fully grasp what the city she lives in is like, or what the country is undergoing at a national level.
On the whole La Mala Noche was intended to be a powerful call-to-action, raising awareness of a heartbreaking industry. It’s well-produced and well acted — in the lead role, Noëlle Schönwald is brilliant. However, it was somewhat lacking in being so introspective, a little remote to create the impact that it needs to reach the widest possible audience.