TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! “El Jimmy” is the nickname of a low-level criminal who allegedly carried out a series of murders-for-hire in his native Mexico at the cost of just a few hundred dollars apiece. He met his end in 2010, an unsolved murder likely committed by someone just like him. Filmmaker Gian Cassini is El Jimmy’s son, and his documentary, Comala, is an attempt to contend with his estranged father’s history of violence – and, to whatever extent it’s possible, understand him. It’s a deeply personal exploration, of course. Still, Cassini’s questions about the sins of the father and their impact on later generations are as old and as universal as that phrase itself.
The film takes on the form of a detective story as Cassini crisscrosses Mexico, seeking out estranged family members to fill in the blank spaces of El Jimmy’s regular absences from his life. Every branch of his convoluted family tree has a piece of the puzzle to contribute. There’s the loving mother who raised Cassini, making up stories about how his father was away studying at a military academy; the kindly uncle who’s disarmingly casual in disclosing his and Jimmy’s shared past of illegal activity; El Jimmy’s father, whose own turbulent history winds its way through the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s before settling down in the United States; the half-sister that El Jimmy fathered with another woman; and, perhaps most poignantly, the late half-brother who idolized both Cassini and El Jimmy but ultimately followed the latter’s path to a tragic, violent end.
“…a low-level criminal who allegedly carried out a series of murders-for-hire in his native Mexico…”
While these encounters provide Cassini with new insights into his father, they lean much more heavily on impressions and opinions than on concrete details. Comala, for better and worse, feels that way, too, in that the movie expresses a lot of often fascinating viewpoints and emotions but doesn’t offer many answers. That might be frustrating for audiences looking for something like a conventional “true crime” documentary.
Still, it does allow for philosophizing and reflection much more than a straightforward collection of police reports, crime scene images and news snippets would. By the end, we probably get to know more about Cassini than the ultimately unknowable El Jimmy, and undoubtedly, there’s value in that. The young filmmaker questions what it means to be a man within a culture that celebrates outlaw behavior and easy money over the kind of sensitive, principled act that making a movie like this represents. It’s an internal conflict that begs to be fully explored.
"…a deeply personal exploration... about the sins of the father"