Apr 12, 2023
A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, writer-director Lorena Padilla didn’t want a quinceañera when she turned 15. Instead of a celebration marking her journey from girlhood to womanhood, she asked for a trip, traveling north to San Jose to visit relatives. With two of her cousins, she spent a day in San Francisco, describing it as a rite of passage. Since then, Padilla collaborated on the story of Bay Area filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes’s documentary 499, but she never made it back here again. Until now, that is, as Martinez, her first feature, screens at the SFFILM Festival with Padilla in attendance.
“You have no idea how thrilled I am,” she says during a recent video chat. “It’s a dream come true…I feel like everything is falling into place. It is such an honor.”
What is Martinez about?
A Fantastic Woman star Francisco Reyes plays the titular character in Padilla’s drama that blends deadpan humor and poignancy. A Chilean immigrant who lived in Mexico for 40 years and spent decades at his office job, Martinez is thrown for a loop when human resources informs him that he must retire. Not only that, but he is also obligated to train his replacement, Pablo (Humberto Busto), an amiable goofball, under the jaundiced eye of Martinez’s office frenemy, Conchita (Martha Claudia Moreno). Meanwhile, the loner and lifelong bachelor’s life undergoes further upheaval when a neighbor he barely knew dies and a compulsion drives him to collect some of her abandoned belongings, further nudging Martinez out of his apathetic slumber.
When Padilla began working on her script, it was an attempt to understand her father, whose personality she describes as “peculiar,” something she used to struggle with when she was younger. But while she did gain more insight into her dad as she was writing, the project also changed.
“It started with that realization, ‘Oh, now I get it. Now I get why he was behaving the way he was behaving,” Padilla says. “It started like that and then it kind of evolved. I was talking about myself. Everything was kind of mixed up in that.”
What Inspired Lorena Padilla’s Story
A Fulbright scholar who got her MFA in dramatic writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Padilla also spent a year in London, taking a course on art direction in film and supporting herself as a waitress. She would take the city’s red double-decker buses to get around the city and read the free newspapers. It was in one of those that she discovered another of Martinez’s story threads, a small item about a woman whose body was discovered in her apartment.
“It was heartbreaking; reality is always worse than fiction,” Padilla says. “She had been dead for two years and she had been wrapping Christmas presents. What stuck in my head was like, ‘Oh my god, I cannot believe that can happen in a big city.’
“One thing led to the other and I said, ‘What had to happen in order for my dad, or Martinez, to change, was to be confronted with mortality.’ And that’s when this woman came back to me.”
Casting an actor to play Martinez presented a challenge. Padilla originally looked at Mexican actors but they all misread the character. They felt sorry for him and his situation and that found its way into their interpretations of him, portraying him as a sweet old man, a far cry from the curmudgeon who existed in Padilla’s screenplay. It was a Chilean friend who suggested Reyes. A Fantastic Woman was not yet out in Mexico, but Padilla was able to watch the trailer for Sebastián Lelio’s film in which Reyes played the much older lover of a transsexual woman. From that tiny slice of his performance, she saw her Martinez.
Padilla sent Reyes her script and met him over a video call, later traveling to Chile to shoot a teaser to make sure he was, in fact, the right actor for the part. Reyes learned of A Fantastic Woman’s Golden Globes nomination for best foreign language film while she was there (it would go on to win the Oscar® in that same category) and feared that he might not want to work with a first-time filmmaker on her independent movie but he remained committed to the project.
The actor and director have something in common that gives both extra insight into the loner that Padilla created. Reyes lived in Paris for a time. Padilla has resided in five countries, and in 10 cities in the past 15 years, including Dallas where is she is a film professor at Southern Methodist University.
“I think being an immigrant, you always have this lonely place inside yourself,” Padilla says. “If you’re lucky, you can go back to your country once in a while, but you don’t belong there and you don’t belong to the new place, either.
“Francisco Reyes and I had a long conversation about that, that’s how we connected. He would say that even though you love a place and you have friends and you are lucky enough to have a house, there is always an emptiness inside you when you’re an immigrant. You’re like more a Mexican abroad or a Chilean abroad. In Mexico, I’m not Mexican enough and in the US, I’m not American enough. It’s like you’re never enough. It’s like you’re just in limbo, in that in between. For us, for Francisco Reyes and me, that was very important.”
Martinez’s Impact on Viewers
A project that began as a way for a daughter to better understand her father turns out to have wider implications. Long before Padilla had an opportunity to show Martinez to an audience, indeed, even before she began assembling her final cut in postproduction, she found that this character she wrote and gave to Reyes to so vividly inhabit was already striking an emotional chord.
“Everyone on the crew, but I mean, everyone, every single person was telling me, ‘My dad is like that,’” Padilla says. “He was like a common experience, because in Mexico, there’s a lot of machismo and it affects everyone. Men are not supposed to express their feelings. So we were all watching our own dads on the camera, and were understanding them and that this was part of our culture, this dynamic our society has.
“(Making the film) was such a cathartic experience; it was such a learning process…I think I understand my dad even better now. I don’t have that weight on my shoulders anymore. It was such an interesting experience that I was very lucky to have.”
Martinez: 7 PM, Fri., April 21, BAMPFA; 3 PM, Sun., April 23, CGV San Francisco. Click here for further information and tickets.
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
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