As universal as themes of life and death are in film, few examine them with the power and honesty of Alexis Gambis’s 2021 Sundance Feature Film Prize and Seattle International Grand Jury Prize winner, “Son of Monarchs.”
The film takes place in Michoacán, Mexico, with geneticist Mendel (Tenoch Huerta, “Spectre”) returning from his emigration to New York after the death of his grandmother. Michoacán is known for its forests filled with monarch butterflies, which are depicted throughout the film, notably in an early scene where what appears to be a tree in the forest is revealed to be a tremendous group of butterflies.
Contrast is a key feature of the film. The story alternates between scenes from Mendel’s childhood, scenes in Mendel’s lab in New York and scenes in the present. Back in his hometown, he faces tension from his family members, specifically his brother Simón (Noé Hernández, “Bel Canto”), as well as suppressed memories from the night of his parents’ death.
Mendel’s need to feel his parents’ presence again, as well as wanting to know what happened that night, prompts him to question the nature of life and death. A relative calls his work with genetics an attempt to both find the beginning of life and to overcome death.
As a scientist, he works to map the genome of the monarch butterfly’s wing. Many scenes show him pulling apart tiny pieces of the butterflies’ wings under a microscope and extracting their orange color. There is a stark difference between the cold, technical scenes in his lab and the warmer, more emotional scenes in Michoacán. Whether he walks through the tranquility of the butterfly forest or puts on an animal mask and yells at the world, these scenes outside of the lab are where he participates and becomes more deeply rooted in nature, as he grapples with understanding where he belongs.
Mendel was told as a child that the monarch butterflies were the souls of his ancestors who had died, and as the film progresses, he seems to believe this more, or at least places importance on this possibility. The contrast between the wonder inspired by the throngs of living butterflies and the sterilized sight of their dead wings under a microscope exemplifies that believing the stories he was told about death could bring him more peace than trying to find a scientific truth.
By addressing themes of life and death, the film manages to remain engaging even with its lack of a strict storyline. The story is buoyed by beautiful cinematography and a constant, subtle tension, but the scenes don’t always lead from one to the next. This conveys how scattered life can be and how much one life can include. The laboratory and the butterfly forest feel almost like they belong in different films, but they are juxtaposed here as parts of the same world. The dialogue, while sparse, touches on this as well while remaining incredibly authentic, allowing for a more honest and meaningful look at what life is. It is not grand or belonging to one aesthetic, but it is rich. In dealing with death, the film does not fear it, but neither is it glorified. The viewer is not told how to feel, rather simply presented with something that feels true.
This leads to a beautiful and moving film. The story is not overdramatized, yet it manages to keep the viewer engaged even after it ends with the same questions it raises. It does not force ideas onto the audience, but its scenes are hard to forget and do not let the viewer walk away unaffected. No film can show all of life, but with its contrast, beauty and specificity, “Son of Monarchs” captures an impressive amount of the human experience.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.