Scene from Días de Gracia. (Photos courtesy Luis Sansans)
Días de gracia, or Days of Grace, is an intense, fast-paced trip through the Mexico of drug lords, kidnapping, corruption and violence. The labyrinthine plot intercuts among three different years — 2002, 2006 and 2010 — and never lets up on the energy level. The film took home eight ARIEL Awards, the Mexican equivalent of the Academy Award®. That success is more astonishing given that the film was writer-director-producer Everardo (Valerio) Gout’s first feature.
Gout and cinematographer Luis (David) Sansans used different film formats to give the various story threads distinctive textures and sizes on the screen. We did try to be constant with the color. The World Cup tournaments of 2002, 2006 and 2010 serve as a framing device.
“It was a luxury to be involved in the conceptualization of the film from the very beginning, at the script development stage,” says Sansans, who took home an ARIEL for his cinematography. “That gives you a lot of tools and a lot of ways to tell the story. The formats gave us a perspective for each character and for each story. The tale unfolds in Mexico City, and the environment is quite tough. We wanted to show that toughness on the film — the coloring of the city, of the walls, the roads, the mountains, everything. Every environment has its own texture, and you can emphasize that with negative. It’s not as flat as digital. Film negative has its own body, and that chemistry and alchemy make all the difference.”
To create a startling perspective on Mexico City, the 2002 segment was photographed mainly in a rare 16mm anamorphic format that resulted in a wide, 3:1 aspect ratio that is not as tall as the normal picture height when it appears in the theater. Sansans found uncoated Russian Lomo lenses that gave the images unique flares and textures. The main character here is a good cop who lives in a world of corruption.
“We had to be with this character all the time, following his steps,” Sansans explains. “That’s another reason that we chose 16mm — it’s lighter and easier to run and walk with. Everardo’s rule of thumb was ‘actors do, cameras follow.’ As a result, we had to be reactive, often using two cameras. This approach sometimes means compromises in the lighting, and you must depend on the latitude of the film stock and the lab.”
“...Every environment has its own texture, and you can emphasize that with negative. It’s not as flat as digital. Film negative has its own body, and that chemistry and alchemy make all the difference.”
The 2006 portion of the story features a kidnapping from the victim’s perspective, and begins by establishing the confused point of view of the victim through the use of the Super 8 film format. As the victim becomes more coherent, the format switches to Super 16, and eventually 35mm spherical. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1 throughout this storyline.
“A kidnapping victim is usually blindfolded and helpless,” notes Sansans. “You have to guide yourself using your other senses. We were using an older stock and created scratches, double exposures and out-of-focus moments. We manipulated shutter angle and used other in-camera techniques. As the story progresses, the format changes and the images become more static.”
The third section, which plays out in 2010, presents a kidnapping from the perspective of the victim’s family, and the psychology of isolation and fear that can result in such situations.
“Here, the camera is more likely to be on a Steadicam,” Sansans adds. “We shot with telephoto lenses to communicate the feeling that they are trapped in their own house. Their new world consists of the security people who protect them, and the kidnappers. They begin to have doubts and aren’t sure whom to believe. Shooting with spherical lenses gave us more choices when it came to focal length and composition.”
In addition to the range of formats, the filmmakers varied film stocks, using KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219 and 5219, KODAK VISION 250D Color Negative Film 7246 and 5246, and EASTMAN EXR 50D Color Negative Film 7245, among others. Fotokem in Burbank provided lab services on the complex project. DI was done with colorist Yvan Lucas at EFILM.
“I became a producer on the film, and saw the whole process from script to projection in the theater,” says Sansans. “After that, you understand better how images will edit or work with music and sound, for example. For me as a cinematographer, this project was like getting a master’s degree.”
Días de gracia was nominated for the Camera d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and among its eight ARIEL Awards were also statues for Best First Feature, Best Actor and Best Production Design.