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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Examining our lives for what we do, why, and how eventually forces us to question what it is to exist. In Son of Monarchs, writer/ director Alexis Gambis takes the idea of existence a few steps further and across cultural paradigms to present a study on one man’s life from micro to macro levels. Gathering his inspiration from his own life as a former biologist, the filmmaker presents an intimate drama about a Mexican scientist, Mendel, played by Tenoch Huerta Mejía, who studies butterflies. Identifying his existence through the scientific genetic mapping of butterflies, Mendel discovers answers to life’s questions.

Mendel grew up in a rural Mexican village, Michoacán, which is the southern migration home for monarch butterflies. His town is poor and suffers from water issues, yet nature is still an integral part of its existence, as the monarch butterflies are celebrated and revered as nature’s gift. Becoming a scientist in New York City, Mendel spends hours looking into a microscope examining the wings of monarch butterflies to identify and map their genetic pigments. Through his work, Mendel experiences haunting dreams and flashbacks to his childhood. Monarchs surrounded him and his brother, and his grandmother introduces him to nature’s colors that exist all around, especially in cactus plants—magical and mystical.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

“Identifying his own existence through the scientific genetic mapping of butterflies, Mendel discovers answers to life’s questions.”

A flood killed Mendel’s parents, leaving a gaping hole in his relationships, especially with his brother. Son of Monarchs follows Mendel back and forth from Michoacán to New York City, like the migration of a monarch, as life events take place, including his grandmother’s funeral and a family wedding. All the while, his brother Simon (Noé Hernández) has resentment for Mendel and his NYC life, which bothers Mendel and manifests in his dreams. He meets Sara (Alexia Rasmussen), who practices trapeze, which connects him closer to the idea of motion and flight, which he has always thought about. As Mendel becomes obsessed with his work and departs from reality, neglecting Sara, his friends, family, and reality, he is metamorphizing. He finally confronts his brother and learns how his parents died.

The color and light that moves through the entire film is a visual experience heightened by Mexico’s mystical heritage and culture, which Gambis weaves throughout and within Mendel’s quiet but present existence. As Son of Monarchs concludes, Mendel’s journey becomes a part of him where he desires a butterfly tattoo, but with the butterflies’ pigment, he studies. His studies also garner him his first published paper, which will be many if he continues. In an almost primal moment, Mendel absorbs the butterfly’s existence as if ready to fly. The idea of flight or moving toward heaven is another theme and metaphor the director explores within death and the cycle of life. Resembling a pagan ritual, Gambis also uses fire and candle ceremonies throughout the film, as if to free everyone’s souls, including Mendel.

Son of Monarchs is a type of philosophical journey but one of beauty and mystical discovery. Once you have viewed this film, you can understand why Gambis received the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan prize for it. He brings together science and spirituality within the beauty of cinema and the power of visual storytelling in a way that is poetic and meaningful.

Son of Monarchs screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Son of Monarchs (2020)

Directed and Written: Alexis Gambis

Starring: Tenoch Huerta Mejía, Alexia Rasmussen, Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez, Noé Hernández, Paulina Gaitán, William Mapother, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

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"…a visual experience heightened by Mexico's mystical heritage and culture..."

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