Without a Trace


In "Sin Dejar Huella" (Without A Trace), we meet one of the two female protagonists crossing the border from Arizona back into Mexico. The beautiful "Marilu" has just returned from her latest foray selling fake Mayan art to gullible US clients. (Played by Spanish actress Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, we never discover the character's real name.) Walking along a desert road, she is apprehended by her nemesis, Mendizábal (Jesús Ochoa), a sexually bullying 'federale' who takes her to the local police station for interrogation.


Released for insufficient evidence, she immediately heads off to the Yucatan peninsula where her confederate, a Mayan Indian, maintains a workshop. Most days he can be found tracing the friezes of Mayan ruins to serve as templates for skillfully executed fakes.


Eventually she bumps into Aurelia (Tiaré Scanda) at a highway convenience store. This young mother of a six year old boy and an infant son, whose father she can not identify, is running away from Ciudad Juárez after hearing one too many reports about maquiladora co-workers falling victim to a serial murderer. Her destination is Cancun, where she hopes to land a good job in a tourist hotel. Since her flight has been financed by cash stolen from her drug-dealing boyfriend, she is constantly looking over her shoulder.


When Marilu discovers that Aurelia is headed in her direction, she offers to help drive her beat-up station wagon in exchange for a lift. The two women, with infant in tow, now head off to Cancun in what has all the elements of a classic road movie like "Easy Rider" or--more precisely--"Thelma and Louise." As in that film, we are witness to women bonding on the open road, while malevolent pursuers track their every move. In "Sin Dejar Huella," the two women are just one step ahead of a red Chrysler with darkened windows that keeps trying to run them off the road. They can't be sure if it is the thuggish cop Mendizábal or hit men from her boyfriend's drug gang.


Just as much as Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" set the tone for "Easy Rider," norteños set the tone for "Sin Dejar Huella." These accordion-based ballads about homesickness, betrayal and lost love are part of the cultural heritage of Mexico. But most of the film's norteños belong to the subgenre known as 'narcocorridos,' so-called because the lyrics refer to corrupt U.S. and Mexican officials, drug dealers and imprisoned traffickers.


This hard-bitten world of desperate men and women belongs to a Mexico that is not frequently seen on Hollywood television shows or movies with their pristine beaches and mariachi bands . Director María Novaro instead shows us the underbelly of Mexico: chemical plants along the Rio Grande belching toxic fumes, feral dogs wandering across dirt roads in small, impoverished towns, and endless displays of North American economic domination in the form of convenience stores stocked with imported consumer goods.


In the course of their odyssey across this barren but oddly beautiful landscape, the two women quarrel when not combining forces to fend off their pursuers. "Ana" not only grew up in Spain but attended college where she majored in art history. Aurelia, who never finished high school, resents her companion's "lisping" Castilian accent and expensive wardrobe and accessories. When Ana needs to use a phone card, Aurelia exchanges hers for Ana's Longines watch. Despite her bourgeois tendencies, Ana is a revolutionary minded woman. When the two are discussing how hard it is to find the right man, Ana says that she has found hers but doesn't know exactly how to locate him. And why is that, asks Aurelia. Because he is in the Lacondon forest, replies Ana. His name, of course, is Subcommandante Marcos.


While sympathetic to the Zapatistas, Ana is not that different from Aurelia. Both women are struggling to stay above water in a society that is denying economic opportunity to the majority of working people and farmers. For women facing even bleaker chances, there are also physical and sexual threats no matter which class you belong to. It can take the form of serial murder in a maquiladora or sexual harassment from a lecherous cop. Eventually, these two proud and independent women face down their male oppressors and secure a kind of deliverance even it is tempered by the grim realities of contemporary Mexican society.


In the final scene of "Sin Dejar Huella," you see a worker taking down a Pemex sign (Mexican Petroleum, a state-owned firm) and replacing it with a sign for "Exxhell," an amalgam of Exxon and Shell. This Mexico, which is being swamped by NAFTA and other forces of neoliberal restructuring, stands behind the more immediate oppressors in these women's lives. Behind the drug dealers and the predatory cops are the impersonal economic forces centered in Wall Street and Washington, DC. Although "Sin Dejar Huella" does not begin to address these social and political institutions, it is certainly a film with a message, namely that the petty lawlessness of its two protagonists is insignificant in comparison to the theft of a nation.


"Sin Dejar Huella" was shown at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade theatre as part of a Latin Film festival in progress from August 10 through September 5. Since director María Novaro has substantial credits to her name, including the 1991 "Danzón" which appeared in US theatres, there is a very good chance that "Sin Dejar Huella" will be released here. If so, don't miss it. It is first-rate film-making and social commentary.