Souvenir – Raindance Film Festival 2019 – Film Review

‘Renting a womb’ is a highly controversial subject in Mexico but it is a topic tackled sensitively in Souvenir. We are introduced to the desperate situation that Isabel finds herself in as she attempts to find means to have access to her son who remains resident in the US with her controlling ex-partner following her deportation. However, Isabel resorts to extreme methods to assist her desperation with long lasting consequences.

Souvenir had its International Premiere during the 2019 Raindance Film Festival, and it is due to be released within Mexico in 2020 where it will hopefully receive a positive reception as it pushes those boundaries and dares to discuss those unspoken topics. The film was 7 years in the making and it is certainly an impressive directorial debut by Armond Cohen. By its nature, Souvenir provides a powerful voice to women encountering similar circumstances.

Souvenir film poster
Souvenir film poster

From the use of handheld cameras at the outset and the emphasis on bodily organs and hospital procedures, Souvenir aims to unsettle its audience. This sentiment is countered by vivid colours as scenes are shot with aqua blue, pinks and greens in the background. We are invited into the worlds of Isabel and Bruno with wide angle shots and the camera zooms in and out of their more intimate scenes and rests at a distance somewhat respectfully permitting several off-screen moments for the couple. Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong’s visually mesmerising flourishes for the camera work within Souvenir will certainly leave you spellbound!

Bruno, played by Marco Perez, is a literature tutor and a lapsed writer having written ’12 useless drafts’ after his divorce and it is quite touching watching the camaraderie and comic elements between him and his friend as they play table tennis, with aqua coloured walls as a background. When he meets Isabel, a former student of his, he is unaware of her ‘situation’ and at that moment, the audience is not entirely aware of the precise nature of Isabel’s situation either which creates intrigue.

Conversely, Isabel’s situation with Joaquin and Sara, with whom she later shares a house, proved to be too good a subject matter for Bruno’s writer instincts to resist and the transformation in him is obvious by way of close ups, jump-cuts and wide angle shots as he becomes more animated and energetic which ultimately takes its toll on his burgeoning relationship with Isabel. Isabel, played so gracefully and nuanced by Paulina Gaitan of Narcos fame, is the woman ‘renting her womb’ as a surrogate and so her situation is rather complex. The dynamics between Isabel and Bruno ultimately shift as she effectively becomes a ‘source’ for his writing material.

Paulina Gaitan as Isabel in Souvenir
Paulina Gaitan as Isabel in Souvenir

Bruno is arrogant and self absorbed, in an earlier scene Bruno’s friend had teased him about having ‘tocophobia’, the fear of parenthood. However, Bruno is unyielding in his lifestyle choices and proud of his childless status. Ultimately, this does not seem to bode well for the future but despite the odds, Isabel still had hope for her relationship with Bruno whilst endeavouring to maintain a modicum of control over her situation with the surrogacy. Bruno himself admitted to not wanting to have the ‘responsibility’ of a child of his own and interestingly quoted Jorge Luis Borges and stated that ‘mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’ It is these subtle conflicts, with the differing convincing arguments advanced, which propel the drama and inner anguish of the characters to dramatic, gripping effect without veering into the realms of predictability.

The characters are brilliantly portrayed by the ensemble of actors so much so that the audience’s empathy could be directed towards any of the four main characters in their time of need. The level of direction is non-judgmental and so you may find yourself unwittingly agreeing with all of the characters’ perspectives. The tone and the pacing are perfectly pitched to provide that emotional resonance with unexpected, raw, tear-jerking scenes. Certainly, the film’s denouement with its twist will probably make you gasp, as I did, and will leave you wanting more! Fortunately, Souvenir does not compromise and remains committed to providing a very compelling story with uncomfortable moments of social realism.

I was certainly struck by a beautiful, poignant moment in Souvenir where Isabel stood in front of her bathroom mirror reviewing her reflection and changing body shape in a meditative mood. It is a simple but very effective scene, reminiscent of the female gaze, which, as revealed by Cohen during the Q&A, seems to have been improvised by Paulina.

Paulina Gaitan as Isabel by a colourful background in Souvenir
Paulina Gaitan as Isabel by a colourful background in Souvenir

Indeed, throughout Souvenir there are several heart stopping scenes which are testament to the strong acting performances. The use of voiceover to express Bruno’s thoughts added to the level of tension but also provides emotional insight and sympathy, to a degree, towards his character.

Cohen alluded to the concept of surrogacy effectively being a taboo topic in Mexico alongside the entire discourse about infertility. In fact, the term used within Souvenir is ‘substitute’ rather than ‘surrogate’ and so does this create further distance or make the process seem slightly more palatable? The film is focused on Isabel which is a fresh take to hear the narrative of the surrogate mother. Souvenir certainly does not hide from demonstrating the complexities of the surrogacy process and the examination of the question of which rights belong to whom or the lack of rights thereof.

Souvenir is a very powerful, evocative and emotional film, which is not without comic relief. It deserves to be seen by many to highlight and stimulate further discussion of the subject of childlessness and surrogacy as well as questioning the traditional concept of a ‘family’ and so I hope that it will receive a UK release in cinemas.

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