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By Niki Foster | June 14, 2008

Gael Garcia Bernal’s directorial debut, “Deficit” returns to some themes featured in his earlier work as an actor, notably the casual and pervasive racism and classism in modern-day Mexico. “Deficit” is brilliantly effective in its treatment of this theme with a deceptively light tone through the story of a teenage party at the summer house of a wealthy Mexican family. Bernal is outstanding as the family’s spoiled eldest son Cristobal, cocky and nonchalantly cruel to everyone around him.

“Deficit” begins just before Cristobal arrives at his family’s summer home, where his sister Elisa (Camila Sodi) and her friends are already well into a party. Cristobal’s girlfriend, Mafer (Ana Serradilla), is planning to join the party later, but after Dolores (Luz Cipriota), a pretty girl from Argentina, arrives, Cristobal changes his plans. He deliberately gives Mafer bad directions over the phone, hoping she’ll never show up so he can successfully put the moves on Dolores.

“Deficit” manages to be hilarious and deeply sad at the same time. I often found myself cracking up, only to be sobered by an offhand remark Cristobal or one of his friends made about the servants implying their inherent inferiority. It is the fact that the partygoers and their conversations are so realistic and familiar that makes the racism so painful. As in real life, the derogatory comments are so flippant it can be easy to miss them amid all the party chatter and the rich kids’ comparatively petty problems, but the effect is much more powerful than would be possible with a heavy-handed approach.

In addition to having an entertaining and moving script, “Deficit” is the product of a great deal of talent. The ensemble cast is excellent to a person, and the photogenic location is beautifully shot and makes a striking contrast to the poorer world outside the walls of the family property. Small touches like the obscene graffiti on the entrance gate reinforce the film’s theme; that there are serious problems underneath much that we can easily laugh at, and that a luxurious “paradise” such as Cristobal’s family home relies on an ugly reality, the hard work of people routinely treated with contempt by those who enjoy the results.

“Deficit” is an outstanding effort from a young cast and crew. It stands out as both an excellent piece of cinema and a plea for social awareness. The film is an exciting and promising new step in Gael Garcia Bernal’s already impressive career.

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