Finding fragments of home in foreign movies

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By Monique Vigneault

There was always something I didn’t fully understand about myself. Growing up as a Mexican-Canadian third-culture kid, I felt an unshakeable sense of otherness. When crossing the ocean, a few international connections deep, the simple question, “Where are you from?” was a universe in itself.

But how was it that I felt most Canadian away from Canada and most Mexican away from Mexico? Why was I such an impossibly nostalgic kid? What was missing seemed unplaceable until one summer afternoon when my mother casually flicked on Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 Cannes classic, All About My Mother. 

It was unremarkable at first—my mother had a habit of forcing me to take interest in foreign films that were difficult, sometimes uncomfortable to watch, with artistic risks and brazen lessons. While my upbringing was one filled with different languages, her fascination with foreign cinema baffled me. My brother and I, still deeming The Spongebob Movie as high art, would mock her for watching those “sad Spanish movies” she loved.

I remember my youth as restless, with vagabond parents who’d gleefully fling my brother and I from one end of the globe to another. Over the course of only 19 years, home was balmy Bangkok, the vibrant island of Singapore, grandma’s garden in Mexico City, Calgary and its jagged rocky mountains and for now, Toronto. Each place carries a part of me that was born there and died there; fragmented parts of my identity that return every now and then at my doorstep, asking me where I went.

It took me so long to realize she was searching for fragments of Mexico on screen.

My parents, however, diverged from me, nestling into a new life in Moscow. It’s the way they are. But it’s also the way I am now. 

That all changed when I was on my own last summer, working in Italy. On the weekends, I’d take hot trains into random towns, and slip into old movie theatres. I dove deeply into Agnès Varda’s quiet solipsism, Claire Denis’ cinema of desire, or Wong Kar Wai’s wistfulness. The drawn up border between all the places I was from was dissolving, cinema became my home. 

I’ve now come to realize, so many years later, that the movies my mother watches aren’t sad at all—they’re melancholic. It took me so long to realize she was searching for fragments of Mexico on screen. Because the traveller, the nomad, remains irreparably, constantly melancholic, existing in that grey area between home and the foreign. 

Women in Almodóvar’s melodramas are famously unbound from the agreeable—they’re erroneous, jaded, at times unwelcoming, sexually untraditional and everything in between. They say joder, mierda and coño more than once in every sentence—and that’s what makes them all the more true. But Almódovar’s women also bloom in isolation, reinventing themselves, always running away and returning. 

It’s the act of returning in his films that gets me. 

Running away felt like a motif we knew all too well, an element at the centre of foreign films everywhere. You see, the impulse to run away is a precise side-effect of what is otherwise seen as a glamorous, globe-trotting childhood; an impulse that I feel only consumes me as the years go by. It’s an addiction in its own way resurfacing every few years: the need to hurl yourself into a new identity, with new people and unknown streets. And while it has its benefits and privileges, it means my identity is never static. 

I’d hear words of my youth echoed back at me—that was exactly the point: cinema was home.

Almodóvar’s films, alongside a growing list of other directors, would become the films I’d slink into at 9 p.m. in a foreign city when feeling out of sorts, or when I simply needed to hear the familiar lilt of the Spanish language. 

Soon my love for cinema was no longer about Almodóvar. It became about any film that felt like a secret note passed on, that felt like it was for me, and only me, that said: Hey, you, yeah, you: I’m like you, haunted by the past. Slipping away in a metropolitan wasteland, like the stranger I frequently felt like, and nestling into a theatre where I’d hear words of my youth echoed back at me—that was exactly the point: cinema was home.

Scenes of rainy goodbyes at airport tarmacs, longing final hugs and shots of empty train stations resonated. Because this was my life. But they were shot with such beauty, that I realized that these goodbyes, though they made me suffer, could possess their own poetry.

I found beauty in personal tragedy through arthouse film. It taught me that I could find that middle point between the liberation in solitude and the unending grief that comes from leaving it all behind. It taught me there are dreamers out there just like me who have undergone that same divergence of identity, who’ve stumbled backwards, ineffably torn by this culture and that culture, unsure of where they belong. To belong nowhere and everywhere all the same. 

And isn’t that the point? 

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