Mexico's Ghosts Haunt the Characters of Isaac Ezban's The Similars

Isaac Ezban's The Similars (Los Parecidos) sadly won't be lighting up the Fandango calendar, but do watch it wherever you can. Pulling from 1950s and '60s science-fiction films and television shows, the film is packaged in pastiche, from the faux graininess to the overcooked Hitchcockian musical score to the sepia-toned cinematography. Still, it delivers a solidly chilling story with some grim messages, not least of them that kids can be assholes, and when they have power, they're especially terrifying. Billy Mumy, eat your heart out.

The Similars opens on a dark and stormy night—Oct. 2, 1968, to be exact. Eight people are stranded at a bus station, waiting for any form of transportation to take them to Mexico City. They straggle into the station gradually: there's Ulises, a shaggy-haired, bearded man who needs to reach his wife, who's giving birth at the hospital; Irene, a pregnant woman escaping to safety from an abusive lover; Alvaro, who's on his way to a political demonstration in Tlatelolco; and Rosa, a mother traveling with her ailing, mentally unstable little boy, Ignacio.

With the stakes set and the desperation and tension within each character already felt, The Similars doesn't waste time in setting up its first moments of panic when the station's bathroom attendant, Gertrudis, becomes violently ill with a seizure and begins purging a yellow liquid from her mouth. Soon, others start to violently faint in the same way, and when they wake up, their faces begin to transmogrify into Ulises' face, with his full beard, facial features and long hair.

The rest begin to suspect a virus has infected them and start to turn on one another, as the film takes its time to draw out the real cause to be Ignacio. Until now, Ignacio has been a blabbering idiot, parroting everyone else's words. But the torrential rain gives him the supernatural ability to play with people's lives and control their actions. Soon, pinup posters on the wall have the same face, and the radio reports citizens' faces transforming similarly. His idea to give everyone the same face stems from a comic book his mother read to him, and his growing sadism toward everyone knows no bounds as he fails to grasp the weight of human life against his infantile belief that he's only playing a game.

The inner pop-culture nerd in me could identify at least five or six different Twilight Zone references blended into The Similars' narrative. Encompassing the themes of various episodes—being stranded at a transportation depot with your evil twin (“Mirror Image”), a child monster with supernatural powers (“It's a Good Life”), mob paranoia at its worst (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”), and a secret villain lurking in your midst (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”)—there's even a Rod Serling-like narrator who delivers a monologue at the beginning and end of the film. The Similars' retro film look effectively gives it an atmospheric touch, sometimes to anxiety-inducing levels. I always admire a director making a point to get his viewers to experience the film on a visceral level through creative editing, but watching this film was a real attack on the senses.

Homages aside, what's even more impressive about The Similars is how Ezban interwove a chapter of Mexican history into his story. Oct. 2, 1968, is the date of the Tlatelolco massacre, wherein a peaceful protest at the heels of months of riots and strikes was met with violent suppression by the Mexican government, with nearly 300 students killed by armed police and military. Alvaro, who was on his way to the protest, may have avoided this fate, but he fares no better here.

But why this event is backgrounded in the first place could be because of some allegorical meaning. As in many sci-fi films from the '50s, The Similars channels a classic fear of forced conformity, suppression of free thought and the loss of personal agency at the hands of a crushing, repressive regime. It's not clear when Ezban wrote the film, but coming into it with the recent baggage of Ayotzinapa, Black Lives Matter and, currently, Standing Rock (as well as a certain president-elect, cough cough), that message is as contemporary and relevant as ever, with the United States' own future up in the air.

There's no light at the end of this tunnel, and The Similars is all the better for it. Because every good science-fiction film knows that to drive the point home, an open ending best invites viewers to come to their own conclusions and connect parallels from the film into their own reality. As with the bus that finally collects Ignacio and his mother by the film's end, we're in for a bumpy ride.

The Similars was written and directed by Isaac Ezban; and stars Luis Alberti, Cassandra Ciangherotti, Pablo Guisa Koestinger and Santiago Torres. Opens Dec. 2 at the Frida Cinema;

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