It would be wrong to say that the films of Nico Pereda are rare, as he's made seven of them in a little over three years. But, given that the 32-year-old Toronto resident has a body of work to rival any of Canada's other art-house superstars, from Denis Côté to Xavier Dolan, they can be hard to find. A situation that TIFF Bell Lightbox's provocatively titled retrospective – Where are the Films of Nico Pereda? – seeks to address.
Like this past summer's Lightbox series about French director Mia Hansen-Love, a Pereda retrospective could be seen as premature if not for two things. One: it seems fair to illuminate a local talent who has already been spotlighted by film festivals and cinematheques around the world. And two: Pereda's movies are particularly well-served by the binge-viewing atmosphere that attends this sort of auteur retrospective.
"I think that they work better when they're shown together," says Pereda over the phone from Boston. He's correct. That his movies feel entirely of a piece with one another probably has as much to do with the fact that they were produced in such close proximity as that they share the same lead actors, Teresa Sanchez and Gabino Rodriguez, perennially cast as mother and son. "Once you get used to working with the same people, it's easier because it's comfortable," Pereda says. "I don't feel like I have to build everything up, because there's a foundation in place. I don't have to worry about the whole film falling apart."
The highlight of the retrospective is Greatest Hits, a Mexican-Canadian co-production that stands as Pereda's cleverest and most technically accomplished movie to date.
"The title refers to the music on some burned CDs that the characters are trying to sell, but it also points in an ironic way to the fact that I'm revisiting things I've done before and characters I've used before" the director says. As usual, Sanchez and Rodriguez play a mother-son duo whose relationship is defined in equal parts by exasperation and fierce affection (some critics have observed that their ever-combative posture suggests a marriage rather than a parent-child back-and-forth). The difference – and it's a big one – is that for the first time, a father figure enters the picture.
"The films all have a lot to do with the absence of a father, which is very common in Mexico for a lot of reasons," says Pereda, who was born in Mexico City before moving to Toronto and studying film at York University. "It has to do with economics; there are so many migrant workers who have to leave the country to work in the United States. And a lot of men cheat on their wives or leave their families, so the women have to sustain the family. Mexican mothers tend to be very attached to their children in a way some North Americans would have a hard time understanding."
There is an even bigger twist in Greatest Hits, and it would be a shame to spoil it. Suffice it to say that Pereda, who experimented with blurring the line between fact and fiction in his atmospheric 2010 Venice Film Festival prize winner Summer of Goliath, executes his most ingenious bit of formal gamesmanship to date. Even beyond its central structural trick, Greatest Hits demonstrates that Pereda has taken his place amongst the ranks of the first-rate international filmmakers he so admires. One long-take sequence near the middle of the film, framed from the passenger seat of a parked car, may be the most potently composed shot of the year. "A lot of times I have a sort of improvised way of framing things," Pereda notes. "But that shot was essential from the beginning."
Considering how much he has to travel back and forth between his homeland and adopted hometown, it's not surprising that Pereda typically prizes a more agile M.O. He's trying to be flexible about making movies in Canada, too: he's in the midst of working on his first Toronto-based production. "It's about the Hungarian Roma community in Parkdale," he says of the film, which will integrate footage shot by his wife, Andrea Bussmann. "The reason that I wanted to make movie about them is that I felt that they had not assimilated into North American society, and I feel somewhat the same. The difference is that this cultural distance is way more visible in the case of the [Roma] community than it is in my own life."
Where are the Films of Nico Pereda? runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox until Nov. 25.