Cadejo Blanco

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Cadejo Blanca
"Karen Martínez is riveting in the role." | Photo: Imperative Entertainment

In Guatemalan legend, the two cadejos are sometimes said to have been brothers. One black, one white, they were cursed to wander forever, taking on the appearance of dogs. One leads mortals to their deaths, often by inspiring a series of bad decisions. The other watches over drunkards, fools and those who long for justified revenge. Most people believe the white cadejo to be the good one, but appearances can be deceptive.

We begin with two sisters: Sarita (Karen Martínez, a standout in 2013’s The Golden Dream) and Bea (Pamela Martínez). They’re young, light hearted, laughing as they try on clothes and tease one another. Bea is going out clubbing and persuades a reluctant Sarita to tag along, promising their grandmother that they won’t be too late home and won’t speak to boys. After reaching their destination, however, the young women fall out. Bea has an argument with her bartender boyfriend Andrés (Rudy Rodriguez) and lashes out at her sister afterwards. Sarita decides to go home early. The next day, she discovers that Bea has not returned.

So begins a search which gradually takes on the quality of a rescue mission or a quest for vengeance. The police are useless, as is all too often the case when ordinary people without good connections go missing in Guatemala City. Not wanting her grandmother to worry, Sarita arranges an alibi, then sets out, all alone, to track down Andrés, whom she is not surprised to find is a senior member of a gang in another town. Convinced that he must be responsible for Bea’s disappearance, or somehow connected to whoever is, she inveigles herself into his circles, taking tremendous risks in the process.

A heroine in the vein of Miss Smilla or Lisbeth Salander but starting out as an innocent, Sarita knows that the odds are against her. She has no special skills. She can’t fight; she doesn’t know the rules of the street; she’s incredibly vulnerable, but she absolutely will not back down, and ultimately she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve her aims. Karen Martínez is riveting in the role, letting us see the terror and sadness and pain that reveal how much courage is needed for this initially shy young woman to take on some of the most dangerous people in her region. At the same time, Sarita is witnessing the full extent of poverty in the area for the first time, and this too, makes an impression, as she comes to understand that it’s a mere fluke in the circumstances of her birth that has protected her from this world for so long.

The majority of the cast in this film is made up of amateur actors whom director Justin Lerner met whilst doing background research in the country, where he is intermittently resident. They contributed their ideas and adapted the dialogue to make it as natural as possible, which really pays off. As such, the film delivers a documentary-like snapshot of life in the barrios, whose residents understand all too well how little they are valued.

This realism sits side by side with the fantastic elements of the film, which are so subtly realised that some viewers will miss them entirely. Early on, after Sarita’s first encounter with Andrés, she meets a dark-coloured dog who regards her as though making a statement; some might say he is the Devil temping her to embark on what could be a dangerous course. Later, faced with another narrative crossroads, she will meet a white dog, almost wolf-like in appearance. Is this the white cadejo? Or has she taken on something of that character herself, as a protector, as someone with the potential to set aside her personal concerns and become a vessel for a primal force that might bring justice to the world?

A crime thriller which at times has the flavour of a western, Cadejo Blanco is a little overlong but never less than compelling. Stay with it through the long final shot when the camera lingers as the credits roll. Lerner delivers some tense action sequences but it’s what he can do with a static camera, trusting his actors and simply observing, that elevates this work. It screened at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival but one hopes that it will not take long to reach a much wider audience.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2021
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Cadejo Blanco packshot
A young woman gets involved in a dangerous world as she tries to find out what has happened to her missing sister.

Director: Justin Lerner

Writer: Justin Lerner

Starring: Karen Martínez, Rudy Rodriguez, Pamela Martínez, Brandon López, Juan Pablo Olyslager

Year: 2021

Runtime: 125 minutes

Country: Guatemala, US, Mexico

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