Robe of Gems review – a startling and unsettling Mexican crime mystery

The film that everyone is talking about this year in Berlin is the dazzlingly accomplished and confident debut feature from the 42-year-old Mexican-Bolivian film-maker Natalia López Gallardo; as a former editor, she has worked with Lisandro Alonso and Carlos Reygadas, whose various influences are detectable in the movie’s mixture of languour and shock. The title appears to refer to a Buddhist parable about the man who lives in poverty, not knowing that a wealthy friend has securely but invisibly sewn a precious gem into his robe so that he would not have to live like this: the allusion is one of the many opaque and difficult things about this film.

It is a disturbing and unsettling piece of work, a psycho-pathological moodboard of a film, in which guilt, horror and shame poison the atmosphere. Exactly what is going on has to be inferred through the indirect hints and cloudy indications; these are never finally and definitively revealed, and I can’t be absolutely sure that this obscurity is not a first-time film-maker’s flaw. But Gallardo certainly has a fluent cinematic language at her command.

This is a story of crime, class and corruption in modern Mexico. Isabel (Nailea Norvind) is a wealthy woman with two children, Benja (Balam Toledo) and Vale (Sherlyn Zavala Diaz). Her marriage is evidently unravelling, and she is taking the kids to move into the derelict modernist villa once owned by her late mother, an imperious woman we see in flashback. The maid there, Maria (Antonia Olivares) is haunted by the disappearance of her sister, a grimly commonplace situation since kidnappings and murders are the staple of Mexico’s criminal classes – along of course with drugs. Police searches show us that this woman’s body may actually be buried in the grounds.

Maria has another secret: rising young mobster Adan (Juan Daniel García Treviño) has some sort of hold over her, and indeed over his own police officer mother Torta (Aida Roa), who is disgusted both with her son’s involvement with crime and her own complicity in cartel operations, blandly expected of her by her own superior officers. And at the centre of it all, Isabel is apparently convulsed with a need to solve the mystery of Maria’s sister, but also to be hurt and punished. Is her self-hate and self-harm a symptom of a poison in the spiritual water supply? Or her hatred of her mother? Her possibly abusive husband? Closeups on Norvind’s face show someone pulsing with suppressed rage and despair.

Complicity … Aida Roa as the conflicted police officer. Photograph: Visit Films

It is a film whose procedural wooziness deliberately renders the audience more vulnerable to its moments of high-impact, zero-trigger-warning shock; these are managed with great skill and brilliant cinematography by Adrian Durazo. But, like the work of Reygadas, I have an uneasy feeling that the brilliance of these flourishes, particularly the climactic and dreamlike slo-mo sequence, might show a certain creative immaturity – impressive and effective though they are.

Yet there is also a fierce, high seriousness to the way that Gallardo is addressing the buried, denied crimes of the Mexican state and the Mexican ruling classes. It has the dimensions of tragedy.

• Robe of Gems screened at the Berlin film festival.