‘Robe of Gems’: Arresting Debut Looks at Three Interconnected Women Amidst Mexico’s Drug-Trafficking Arena

By 04 November, 2022

Robe of Gems’ (Manto de Gemas, 2022) long, languid, opening shot gives a taste of the rural Mexican state of Morelos, exquisitely resembling a Realist painting in its depiction of a wild garden. Engulfed by the high-pitched buzzing of insects on a sweltering day, it creates a lethargic atmosphere that hints at the sensorial experience to come. Natalia López Gallardo’s feature debut portrays the impressions of three unrelated female characters who fight their inner demons. Set in the menacing arena of drug trafficking, kidnapping, unpunished crimes and dysfunctional family, the film explores the psychological ramifications of violence through realism, dreams and metaphor. 

Wealthy Isabel (Nailea Norvind) has moved with her two children to a country house owned by her late aristocratic mother. A scene where her husband throws a tantrum after she turns him down sexually shows a marital crisis. At the modernist villa, she learns that the sister of long-time housekeeper María (Antonia Olivares) has gone missing. She offers help, not considering the murky water she might get into. In the meantime, Roberta (Aida Roa), a police officer in charge of the investigation, tries to get her son (Daniel García) – a gangster in training – out of the cartels. 

The fragmented narrative reveals the writer/director’s creative attempt to convey a surreal ambiance for those living under such a violent criminal backdrop. Situated in a remote area, the modernist and abandoned villa features narrow slits in its dull concrete walls resembling loopholes of a fortress. Observed as a source of refuge and protection, the house suggests enclosure as in a hidden space where secrets are kept. The naïve María works with the narco gang while Roberta is caught up in a corrupt system run by the same gang. In one of the house’s dark rooms Isabel makes a sinister deal with Roberta’s husband and long-time family gardener Ventura (Ventura Rendón). The three women are from distinctive worlds, but their paths are connected by the missing woman. The intertwined plots reveal different dimensions of the same character as if each woman were reflecting a protagonist. 

The Mexican-Bolivian director develops each character within a sense of community rather than focusing on single individuals, as in a collage with superimposed layers. Gallardo suggests that reality is like a robe of gems – hence the film’s title – inspired by a Buddhist parable where needy people struggle their whole life without noticing that a precious gem has always been sitting inside their robe’s pocket, a gift from the enlightened. 

Gallardo meticulously emphasises dramatic moments by showing the characters’ actions as they speak without exposing their faces or expressions, implicating verbal violence. The rough tone in Isabel’s late mother’s reprimand over a dinner between the two women is a compelling scene and shows how the director visually translates each character’s emotions. Isabel’s reactions are perceived by her agitated hands. Another scene depicting psychological violence between female characters comes later when Roberta’s overbearing boss berates her for nosing around the drug smuggling operation. Gallardo’s exceptional editing skills from long-time collaborations with Amat Escalante (Heli), Lisandro Alonso (Jauja) and husband Carlos Reygadas (Post Tenebras Lux) allows her to experiment with a unique cinematic vision and excellent use of sound in this elliptical arthouse mystery thriller.

Robe of Gems was awarded the Silver Bear Jury Prize at the Berlinale 2022. The film was nominated for the Sutherland Award in the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

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