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‘What We Leave Behind’ Review: A Filmmaker’s Lyrical and Gripping Tribute to Her Grandfather

“Life is hard work,” Julián Moreno tells his granddaughter, filmmaker Iliana Sosa, as she interviews him behind her camera. He is in his 90s when he says this, and there is not a note of complaint or regret in his words. However, there is more than a little teasing when he wonders about Sosa’s “different way of working,” one that has nothing to do with farming or building a house. A man of few words, all of them well chosen, Moreno is the focus of what we left behinda poetic meditation on family, mortality, tradition, and the US-Mexico border.

Receiving a theatrical release via Ava DuVernay’s Array ahead of its streaming debut on Netflix, Sosa’s terse but leisurely ode to her grandfather, which received two Special Jury Awards at SXSW, strikes reverberating chords, regardless of whether any Once you’ve been to rural Mexico, where most of the documentary takes place. (And if you’ve traveled that country and met the locals, instead of flying to a resort, it’s a beautiful reminder of a certain down-to-earth openness.) Developing over a few years, what we left behind it is alive with the shock of witnessing someone aging within a compressed time frame, a moving cinematic phenomenon whether the subject is a child or a nonagenarian.

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First-person cinema at its most eloquent.

Release date: Friday, September 30
Director: Iliana Sosa
Writers: Iliana Sosa, Isidoro Bethel

1 hour 11 minutes

Every month for about 20 years, Moreno boarded a bus for the 560-mile trip from his home in San Juan del Río, in the northwestern Mexican state of Durango, to visit his daughters and grandchildren, including Sosa, in El Paso, Texas. She arrived with sweets and other gifts, and would quickly leave after a day or two. As Sosa begins her film, Moreno is making the latest of these trips and turning her attention to a new project at home. In a Texas living room, he captures his mother, or perhaps one of his aunts, bundled up like a little boy for the trip home. However, he insists that his white hat takes precedence over his parka hood.

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Widowed at 45 and the father of seven children, some still living in his hometown, some in the United States, Moreno knows about hard work. He shows Sosa his 1964 foreign worker identification card, from his days as a bracero, a temporary worker in the U.S. At age 89, he begins supervising the construction of a cinderblock house on the adjoining lot. to the small house that she shares with her son Jorge and a robust and brindle dog of supreme sweetness named Pinto. The new house, like the cross-border visits he made for years, are for Moreno a way to ensure the solidity and stability of family ties.

During an interview at the kitchen table with her uncle Jorge, whose blindness is revealed only gradually, so sure is his navigation through the interior and the patio of the house, the director gently delves into the matter of her grandmother’s death at age 39 and its effect on the family. Perhaps, she suggests, she expedited the move to Texas for some of her siblings. But Jorge does not draw the same conclusions. Sosa and her canny editor, Isidore Bethel, who also co-wrote the film with the director, let the silences play out, along with a sense of a psychological border that was lovingly addressed.

Sosa punctuates the scenes involving Julián, Jorge, and a few other family members with lyrical interludes that combine his evocative voice-over reflections with static shots of San Juan del Río: silhouettes of roosters against a multicolored sky, a house in ruins that was once great. The eloquent camerawork, by Sosa, Judy Phu and Monica Wise, is perhaps most poignant in its close-ups of Moreno’s beautifully wrinkled face (similarly recalling antithetical Hollywood notions of beauty in A love song). A sequence in which Moreno suggests frying an egg, “nice and crisp,” and then does so, is fascinating in his commitment to simple everyday pleasures. It’s also fun to watch him swat flies.

As the wiry Moreno grows frail and then diminutive, it’s heartening to recall an earlier scene of him visiting his wife’s grave with the younger members of his family, and the social activity and vibrancy of the cemetery, with its bursts of color of fresh flower bouquets from the garden. and paper flower arrangements. It’s possible that with better medical options at the time, things could have turned out differently for the grandmother Sosa never knew: “Some said it was cancer,” Jorge tells him, and for Jorge himself, born visually impaired but not completely blind. Still, the interventions of the hospital-industrial complex have nothing to do with the inspiring scenes of Julián’s last days, scenes that will probably stick with you for their no-holds-barred focus on comfort and love. Inviting us to sit for a while in this world of tradition, what we left behind offers a vision of both a good death and a good life. Time will pass quickly enough, and both matter.


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