Ecuadorian director Gabriela Calvache tells the story of a prostitute’s attempt to gain freedom from a life of oppression. Shifting between gloomy exploration of the sex trade and gritty revenge thriller, LA MALA NOCHE is an intriguing yet tonally uneven drama featuring some strong performances.
Dana (Noëlle Schönwald) is a drug-addict and prostitute scavenging together money to pay for her sick daughter’s medical expenses. Grounded by an authentic, sombre performance by Schönwald, the story takes an unusually tender approach to what can be a grim and troubling profession. An early scene between Dana and her client, doctor Julián (Cristian Mercado), plays as unexpectedly intimate. Softly lit as if dreamlike, extreme closeups navigate their bare bodies as the camera pans out to reveal Dana gently massaging the man. Seeing them chat informally is refreshing, Calvache clearly more fascinated by their emotional relationship than the physical. They hold each other in their arms and it feels weirdly comfortable; almost romantic in its staging. Brief moments of nudity are displayed matter-of-factly, desexualised in a way that is rare in film. It is a nicely melancholic moment, made all the more so by the sudden violence directly proceeding their encounter, shattering the illusion of an idle tryst.
LA MALA NOCHE works best when exploring the duality of the dream of ‘Dana’ and the reality of Pilar, revealed to be the protagonist’s actual name. Pilar’s resilience is to be admired. Able to flick a switch and transform into the seductive and mysterious ‘Dana’, she turns a house call by the deeply concerned Julián into another ‘date’. Repressing the pain from a recent attack by her pimp’s henchman, Pilar conjures an alluring atmosphere which alters her quiet, depressing home to a warm, cheerful spectacle. Beers are opened, music is playing and she is cavorting around the living room: Pilar works hard to keep the myth of ‘Dana’ alive. Paired with a scene of the lifeless gyration by scantily-clad dancers in the pimp’s club, Pilar has been allotted significant ‘advantages’ over the other girls consigned to an isolated compound. She gains some joy from her time with Julián, while the others are practically absent from their surroundings, moving on muscle memory alone as they stare into nothingness. Calvache does a commendable job of avoiding the cliché of the kind-hearted prostitute crying out for help. Julián’s obvious desire to ‘save’ this woman is easily dismissed as sheer ignorance towards the harsh reality of her trade. Their pastoral breakfast is promptly disturbed by talk of money, addiction, and questions surrounding the power dynamic between client and employee.
Yet, despite all in its favour, the film never truly pulls the viewer in emotionally. When the plot kicks into gear and less time is spent on the characters and their unique ‘relationship’, the story devolves into a simplified tale of revenge. Several scenes are devoted to a young girl who has been kidnapped by your typical pimp, Nelson (Jaime Tamariz). While the film makes some attempt at demonstrating a grooming process of toys and drawing materials gifted to the girl, without proper characterisation or background, it is difficult to see her as anything but a plot device. Tormented by thoughts of her (barely glimpsed) daughter and the abuse this captive girl awaits, Pilar sets out on a deadly rescue mission. Her desire to free the girl is understandable but lacks any established connection to really give the film a sense of urgency. Julián’s narrative arc is similarly underdeveloped. There are moments which convey his disillusionment with the world his misplaced devotion has dragged him inside, but he too is side-lined in a manner which denies the story its desired poignancy.
While nicely shot and led with conviction by Schönwald, LA MALA NOCHE never reaches the level of heart-wrenching drama to which it clearly aspires. The film succeeds as a curious representation of affection between prostitute and client without becoming maudlin but would have been wise to remain a character study without the unnecessary diversion into violent retribution.