Writer-director Alexis Gambis presents identity and personal journey through the lens of biology
Son of Monarchs will play in theaters beginning October 15th and stream exclusively on HBO Max November 2nd.
Son of Monarchs is an arresting and thoughtful, yet also somewhat difficult and inaccessible film analyzing one man’s personal and spiritual journey, as uniquely considered through the lens of biology.
Mendel (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is a Mexican expat living in New York City and making his way as a biologist, studying, mapping, and editing the genes of monarch butterflies: specifically their design and their patterning and coloration. It’s an imprecise science, largely reliant on experimentation: he makes a change and sees what happens.
The death of Mendel’s grandmother brings him back to Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico, where after a long absence he reunites with his family and hometown, reintroducing him to old memories and relationships; the trauma losing his parents, the ritualistic and spiritual side of his family, and a very stressed relationship with his brother who resents his abandonment.
Written & directed by French-Venezuelan Alexis Gambis, himself a biologist, the film is certainly one imbued with a unique perspective which gives the film its greatest strengths.
It’s wonderfully photographed. I watched it as a digital screener and can only imagine how majestic it would be on the big screen. The story unfolds through a mix of urban and rural environments including New York City and the butterfly-filled forests of Michoacán that fill the screen with life, but most impressively, frequent biological macro-photography shows us the viewpoints of petri dishes and microscopes that consume Mendel’s working days and invite the viewer to ponder the possible meanings that dissection, splicing, coloration, and experimentation may represent.
Mendel’s identity is very much wrapped in the butterflies which filled his youth; he even extracts the pigment to tattoo his own skin with their images.
In viewing any film, there’s a certain natural litmus test which occurs for me. By the time I’m 30 or 40 minutes in, I should know what I’m watching. Not necessarily the plot, as that’s not always the endgame, but some sense of direction or understanding of what it’s about and why I should care.
With Son of Monarchs, I didn’t have that. I started to feel a bit impatient with it. As it meandered along, I still wasn’t seeing the bigger picture, and the shapeless editing also presented a challenge — I wasn’t even sure if the current plot threads were a present timeline or extended flashbacks.
Toward the film’s last act this confusion mostly irons itself out as Mendel returns to Mexico again for his niece’s wedding, this time with a better understanding of himself and answering some of the film’s open questions.
The narrative does come together, but even so the conclusion is abrupt and almost anticlimactic, though on further reflection I’m appreciating it a little better: the storytelling here is subtle, and the journey ends on more of a spiritual resolution than a physical one.