When a youngster is snatched by the Mexican cartel, their distraught parent goes vigilante in a desperate attempt to get them back. This is the plot of Belgian-Romanian writer and director Teodora Mihai’s crime thriller but if you’re expecting something along the lines of action flick Taken, think again.
Inspired by a true story, La Civil centres around middle-aged housewife Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez) who, on a routine drive to the store, is pulled over by a menacing local gangster known as El Puma (Daniel Garcia) to be informed that her teenage daughter Laura has been kidnapped, demanding 150,000 pesos for her safe return. After first turning to her ex-husband Gustavo (Álvaro Guerrero) for help, she decides to take matters into her own hands.
Coming from a documentary background, this being her debut drama, Mihai has a very authentic, impactful tone to her storytelling. We’re witness to just glimpses of violence and gang culture across the lengthy running time, the lens focussed instead on a compelling character study of the suffering mother. The camera, controlled by accomplished cinematographer Marius Panduru, tracks the protagonist’s movements, trembling with her as she approaches dangerous situations and giving us extreme close-ups of her evolving expressions rather than revealing the horror she is facing.
Vibrant colours from the opening moments seem to drain from the screen as the distressing search continues, Cielo becoming increasingly desperate as she slowly discovers the true extent of her child’s disappearance. A chilling prison scene towards the finale is terrifically constructed, the smartly conceived script from Mihai and her Mexican writing partner Habacuc Antonio De Rosario exploring the nuances and life-changing ramifications of the nightmarish experience.
At the beating heart of the piece is an emotionally charged central turn from Arcelia Ramírez. The social-realist style and sensitivity of the skilful director helps to draw out a very natural, moving performance, elevating La Civil from the expectations of the premise.