When one thinks of road movies, a single mom nursing an infant son and a sexy smuggler of fake Mayan artifacts don’t exactly spring to mind as lead characters. Yet, that’s exactly whom we travel with in director Maria Novaro’s visually sumptuous “Without A Trace.”
Aurelia (Tiare Scanda) is the mom, but don’t let her maternal instincts and the curves underneath her hip-hugging slacks and midriff-revealing halter top fool you. She’s one tough nut, especially when it comes to procuring a better life for herself, her baby, and her six year-old son Juan (Edmundo Sotelo). Fearing the string of serial killings targeting young women near the factory where she works almost as much she fears what will happen if she stays with her studly drug trafficking boyfriend Saul (Martin Altomaro), she flees impulsively…but not without taking Saul’s stash of illegal contraband with her.
Heading south from the dusty Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, Aurelia bumps into Ana (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) in a dingy truck stop. A cultured, sophisticated beauty, Ana is nonetheless penniless despite her Gucci sunglasses, expensive watch, and a Rodeo Drive dress. She’s on the run as well, fleeing not from drug lords but from a sleazy corrupt cop named Mendizabal (Jesus Ochoa) whose desire to bring this beautiful suspected smuggler to justice is outweighed only by his leering desire for her.
As the two unlikely partners flee their separate but equally tenacious pursuers, they forge a tentative friendship even as they realize that the more they get to know each other, the deeper are the deceptions — and the dangers — which brought them together in the first place.
“Without A Trace” is that rarest of road movies in which the protagonists actually go somewhere, both literally and figuratively. There’s no pseudo-intellectual babbling about the meaning of life along the way; no psycho-social ranting on the world’s cruelty. Aurelia’s got a constantly squawking mouth to feed, Ana’s broke, and they’re both too busy escaping from their respective hunters to make cutesy pop-cultural references to retro-chic ’70s TV shows.
While Mendizabal and Saul are essentially walking props, two sides of the same Mexican machismo stereotype with only one thing on their minds, Ana and Aurelia emerge as complex individuals. They’re neither entirely pure nor irretrievably corrupt. In other words, they’re like real people.
Sanchez-Gijon and Scanda, respectively, have to fight to get the audience to notice this; to look past their skimpy, Unavision soap opera costumes and the often hinted at, never acted upon (damn it!) sexual tension between them and see them for the strong-willed, independent-minded women they are.
Novaro places them in breathtaking settings that defy typical American stereotypes about what Mexico looks like. From the scorched, sandy scrub land of the North through the Yucatan tropics and on to the beaches of Cancun, Novaro and DP Serguei Saldivar Tanaka succeed in turning this often overlooked country into an astonishing character in its own right.
Set to a quirky Tejano soundtrack that often acts as a sort of Shakespearean Greek Chorus, “Without A Trace” mixes “Thelma and Louis” with a dash of “Duel” and comes up with a compelling road movie that’s worth the drive to see.