At the end of Julián Hernández’s vigilante melodrama Tattoo of Revenge (Rencor Tatuado), a male heartthrob (Vicente Colmenares, played by Irving Peña), and an androgynous woman (Aída Cisneros, played by Diana Lein) come together in a passionate kiss. The symbolic merging of masculine and feminine romantic pursuits (continued from Hernández’s previous prize-winning films A Thousand Clouds of Peace, Broken Sky, Raging Sun, Raging Sky, I Am Happiness on Earth) is no mere happy ending. Its queerness represents a personalized triumph over the crime, deception, violence, and decadence roiling present-day Mexico. Tattoo of Revenge is an erotic thriller that challenges Millennial viewers with a moral and political subtext.
Hernández explores our contemporary nightmare by creating his own personal mythology: Film student Vicente is fascinated by a series of revenge attacks signed by the mysterious La Vengadora, who tattoos a large scorpion on the torsos of men accused of rape and then posts the humiliating images in the media. La Vengadora’s photos remind Vicente of avant-garde art by the radical feminist Aída Cisneros, who presumably committed suicide after being brutalized. Cisneros’s legend is exploited by talk-radio charlatan Divinidad Martínez (Itatí Cantoral), “The Sultry Voice” whose dabblings in occult superstition, broadcast on XEZ, captivate “every corner of Latin America.”
In this dizzying narrative, Hernández emulates and heightens the obsessive intensity of film noir. Tattoo of Revenge riffs, specifically, on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — as if that grotesque but popular franchise was rebooted by a conscientious art filmmaker. Vicente’s investigation (“It’s all blurry, but it’s as absurd as my life. Nobody understands their own life anyway”) plays alongside Aída’s secret missions. Deep, glowing black-and-white procedural imagery (seen in old-fashioned slide-projection frames) alternate with scenes of imagined guilt and desire in emotionally accented hues, plus full-color flashbacks.
Tattoo of Revenge’s kaleidoscopic cross-section of bohemian, underworld, and media types is such a sensual feast that it evokes the troubled temperaments of today’s social disorder. Hernández is one of cinema history’s most accomplished visual stylists (rivaled only by Zack Snyder this century). His ability to connect image to meaning, emotion to politics, and behavior to morality is highly sophisticated — though delirious. Just as Aída’s visual development and aesthetic interpretation responds to 21st-century chaos, Hernández’s superb cinematographer Alejandro Cantú swirls about, discovering the spatial dimensions of intimacy and alienation.
Tattoo of Revenge is billed as a “female empowerment thriller” because that’s the crude way films are sold these days, but Hernández dreams his moral tale against the juvenile immorality of most contemporary media. He advances from the deep romanticism of his early films, in which he seemed spellbound by the rapturous beauty of capturing young men as they fall in love and relate to women’s open sacrifice and emotional peril. Yet Hernández is no PC-monger, even as he delves into the half-world of drag queens and transsexuals; he views the underworld as part of an upturned society. Tattoo’s heroine takes the law into her own hands, just as corrupt politicians mixed up in drug and porn rings operate with impunity, and media mountebanks using unnamed sources despoil the culture and endanger the social order — as the film’s startlingly up-to-date, Costa-Gavras-like coda reveals.
“There’s no justice” says an underworld crook in Tattoo of Revenge. It’s a fitting start for Hernández’s new film because there is no justice in a post-cinephilia culture that ignores his masterpieces while that banal trio of Oscar-winning commercial hacks — Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro — are celebrated as Mexico’s leading filmmakers. (Notable auteurs Sergio Tovar Velarde (4 Moons) and Alonso Ruizpalacios (Gueros) are also overlooked.)
Hernández’s private moral code is in operation as is his signature visual style of seeing the world sensuously as well as ethically. His personal expression is interesting as cultural identity: Vicente’s glamorous fashion-model scruff and white sneakers (he glides when he strides) contrast with Aída’s Amazonian fierceness (braids crowning her head), while drag-queen informant Marta (César Romero Medrano) inspires their empathy and impatience. Hernández’s sexual compassion is still relatively conservative, thus still shocking to progressives who are also confronted with his Indian-European archetypes — all reasons that this master filmmaker remains relatively unknown to American moviegoers.
But Hernández’s art is also sensitive to modern spiritual crisis. The range of his cinematic expression recalls The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Bride Wore Black, and Caught in the Web (classics that explore the revenge motive), and finally settles on home turf, referencing the surreal moral challenge of Luis Buñuel’s El (1953). In this way, Tattoo of Revenge is the only contemporary movie that reacts to Mexico’s corruption and our own.