From Sundance: metamorphosis and latinidad in ‘Son of Monarchs’ | Arts
In many cultures, the monarch butterfly is a powerful symbol. In Mexico, the butterfly arrives around the Day of the Dead and brings souls with it. In the United States, where the butterfly stops along its journey, the monarch has become a symbol of migration, used in migrant justice campaigns during the last years. Much like the butterflies that lend themselves to its name, Venezuelan French filmmaker Alexis Gambis’ latest film ‘Son of Monarchs’ – which premiered Jan. 29 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival – is itself an incarnation of the metamorphosis.
Both directed and written by Gambis, the film follows Mendel (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a Mexican scientist living in New York who, enchanted since his childhood by the monarch butterflies of his hometown of Angangueo in Michoacán, devotes his career from biologist to butterfly mapping genetics. When called back to his small hometown to heal the wounds of his past, he is faced with a need to reconsider his own physical and spiritual identity, forcing him to turn to monarch butterflies for answers.
By focusing on Mendel, a scientist with spiritual roots returning to Angangueo, the film is able to bridge the perceived gaps between the two disparate ways of looking at the world: science and spirituality. An immigrant struggling to be fully happy in his adopted American home, Mendel’s role in the film is one of self-discovery. And yet, neither spirituality nor science alone, neither Angangueo nor New York provide true fulfillment for Mendel. It is only when they are combined that they relieve Mendel of his desperation and disconnection.
The film artfully focuses on the interdependence of science and spirituality. Mendel’s relationship to science is spiritual (looking under the microscope, for example, is portrayed as an inherently spiritual act, as he turns to his work in times of meditation and unease) and his relationship to spirituality is scientific (as a child growing up in Angangueo, he is filled with questions and hypotheses about the folklore taught to him).
Because it is largely motivated by Mendel’s dissatisfaction with the life of New Yorkers, “Son of Monarchs” also serves as a direct counterbalance to the idea of an American dream or a utopia. American. Instead, the film makes a radical visual argument for the cyclical nature of migration. As Mendel passes the film torn between Mexico and the United States both physically and mentally, “Son of Monarchs” plays with the idea that people should be able to move around frequently and explore different realms. The film also draws attention to what director Gambis called the uniquely Latinx experience of finally returning home to one’s family roots. Like the butterfly that needs constant migration to survive, Mendel thrives only when constantly moving between Mexico and the United States, as Huerta Mejía shows through her captivating and nuanced performance.
It is notably in Angangueo, and not in New York, that Mendel can begin the process of reconciling his spiritual and scientific identities, when he joins his childhood friend Vincente (Lazaro Gabino Rodriguez) in a farewell ritual to the dead. Invented for the film through a process of improvisation by the actors and non-actors of the Michoacán film, the ritual involves Mendel and others taking on animal characters, howling and growling on the mountainside. It is here that Mendel begins his metamorphosis into the titular monarch, a transformation made worse by the fluid, flowing planes mimicking the butterfly’s point of view.
While this specific ritual is not true to Mexican culture, the rest of the film’s portrayal of Mexican life, inspired by Gambis’ time in the country, is authentic without being kitsch or selfish. Sound design is often left out when considering the experience created by the films, but in ‘Son of Monarchs’ the soundscape created by sound editor Samuel Nacach, sound engineer Andrés Saldaña and the ADR recorder Luis Sumano is the root of its authenticity. The soundscape throughout the film is complex and layered, inviting viewers to immerse themselves in the scene. For example, when Mendel and his brother Simón first meet at Angangueo’s family home after their grandmother’s funeral, the sound of Ave Maria in Spanish continues in the background, mingling with the sound of music and cars outside and the rest of the big family entering and leaving the rooms in the background.
Using its experimental approach to sound and visuals and its complex storyline tinged with magical realism, “Son of Monarchs” is an astonishing exploration of what it means to be a Latinx immigrant to the United States. Focusing on the intersections of science and spirituality to explore family and self, it tells a larger and almost universal story of growth and metamorphosis in the process.
– Editor-in-chief Sofia Andrade can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @SofiaAndrade__.