Opening with an amusing disagreement between director Gian Cassini and his mother, Comala establishes its story and unique rhythm early. Cassini believes that his father, famously known as El Jimmy in the Mexican newspapers at the time of his death in 2010, was a hitman in Tijuana. His mother thinks that is ridiculous because, if he was indeed in that profession, Cassini’s grandmother would have been better off financially. Cassini counters this by noting that it does not take much money to convince a man to kill.
The price point to tempt a man to take another person’s life is moot in the grand scheme of things, what Cassini is interested in is finding out more about the man who he barely knew outside of his yearly visits. While his mother struggled to get by, Cassini’s father had a whole new family to occupy his time. However, as the investigation into El Jimmy unfolds, it becomes evident that his father’s other life was not immune to the virus of violence and crime that is deeply rooted in the Cassini’s family’s history.
It is when untying the complicated knots that comes with familial bonds where Comala truly thrives. Feeling like a Mexican The Sopranos at times, Cassini’s dysfunctional family is filled with an intriguing cast of characters whose tales range from amusing to chilling. The audience must decipher what is fact from boisterous fiction based on who is sharing the information. While Cassini’s half-sister shares harrowing stories of El Jimmy’s physical abuse of former girlfriends, and her own brother’s tragic fate following in his father’s footsteps, Cassini’s womanizing grandfather spins a riveting, but possibly fake, story about how his time in Fidel’s revolutionary army led to working for the C.I.A in America.
While each family member Cassini speaks with has a fascinating story to tell, the theme of adversity is always present. Establishing the poor economic and political climate of Mexico at the time, Cassini highlights his father’s embrace of guns and fast money at a young age. In one section, his uncle openly recounts the gleeful exploits he and El Jimmy had selling drugs in California as the “Disney Cartel.” Though Cassini never condones his father’s actions, even openly expressing disgust at his dad’s violent treatment of women, one understands how crime can sometimes be viewed as the only viable option by some. As his uncle states, in a roundabout way, criminals frequently reinvest their money back into the community – creating jobs in various sectors including education, accounting, plumbing and architecture – more than politicians do. This structure not only makes crime more appealing, but further fosters an abusive toxicity that erodes families for generations.
For a documentary focused on crime and family dysfunction, Cassini’s film is remarkably assured. As sensational as some of the revelations are, Comala is surprisingly restrained. Frequently lingering on images of family members and using various techniques, such as projecting his father’s image on his own face and using shadows, to reinforce the thin line of truth he is attempting to uncover, Cassini constructs a meditative and emotionally rich work.
In putting together the puzzle pieces of his estranged father’s life, Cassini effectively documents the ways in which familial ties are often messy. However, even when sifting through the complex muck of fragmented bonds, Comala still manages to find strength and identity in family.