A teenage girl checks into a hospital for a routine procedure. But then she dies suddenly and unexpectedly – or so her widowed mother Esperanza is told. Grieving and under shock, Esperanza still has enough energy to ask difficult questions about the exact circumstances of her daughter’s death and about the hasty funeral. Suspicions of a cover-up arise in her, and fears of human trafficking. She is a very pious person and so she turns to her “household saints” for help, her “santitos”. In this mix of grief, conspiracy theories, religion, and superstition, she seems to start to get lost in the mist between the real world and her imagination. So Esperanza’s quest to find her daughter is in many ways a quixotic tale.
In this Mexican comedydrama there is no shortage of tragedy, but it has also many humorous aspects. I find that the tragic mood in this film is like a constant “hum”, while the humorous moments are like frequent but irregular “accents” that vary in colour: sometimes subtle and subdued, sometimes sensitive and caring; sometimes tragic slapstick, and sometimes pure social satire. But it is important to stress that Santitos does at all times hit the right tone and manages to keep the delicate balance between melancholy and humour.
The film profits from very good directing (courtesy of Alejandro Springall) and writing, as well as highly professional camera work and shot composition. María Amparo Escandón, on whose novel the film is based, also wrote the screenplay. [By the way, as she writes in both Spanish and English, she has published her novel Santitos also in an English-language version under the title Esperanza’s Box of Saints.] One could argue that the film’s storyline starts to meander and stall a bit in the second half of the second act, but on the other hand, as Esperanza herself is “meandering” a bit and needs time to find herself, I suppose we need to give the film this “downtime” in order to let the story breathe. The achievements in writing, directing and cinematography aside, there is also some great acting by all involved. Even minor parts are cast with good actors like Demián Bichir (who recently played Bob in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). The two most important roles are filled with veteran actors Ana Bertha Espín and Fernando Torre Lapham. The late Torre Lapham’s role is especially pivotal to set the atmosphere for the world Esperanza comes from. But Santitos is a film that centres around the lead character for 100% of the time, so the success of this film is entirely based on the outstanding performance of its lead actress, Dolores Heredia.
As with any film, there are some negative aspects, which in the case of Santitos are absolutely negligible. I found one miniscule plot hole, as well as one tiny editing error. And the generally very good expository scene at the beginning of the film contains a line or two of dialogue which handles the necessary information-cramming a bit clumsily. The only real (though still minor) point of criticism might be the occasional score music which is often too on-the-nose and can at times come across as soppy and clichéd.
Santitos is quite a unique film, but not “difficult”, and I can definitely recommend this film to anyone. In its balance between melancholia and subtle humour it reminds me of The Thin Yellow Line, another Mexican comedydrama (which coincidentally can count Alejandro Springall amongst its producers). I would rate Santitos roughly at 8 out of 10.