• Cristee Cook

Independent short film 'Manos de Oro' explores Mexican family dynamics through a unique lens

By Cristee Cook

In its 30 minute run time, the independent short film Manos de Oro (Hands of Gold) contains a narrative arc that is rich and complete. The story follows Sergio, who is grappling with his identity and addiction after a sudden inability to continue his life’s work as a mechanic. As Sergio’s existential crisis reaches a peak, he and his son Fernando confront the tensions in their relationship. Through the lens of the father-son relationship contemporary themes of identity, gender roles, and traditional family values emerge.

Writer/Director/Co-Producer Merced Elizondo reached out to Dallas Art Beat pre-release of the short film, where over Zoom we discussed Elizondo’s background, what inspired the film, and how the story views traditional Mexican family dynamics and expectations with a critical lens. Manos de Oro also marks a new filmmaking style for Elizondo.

On October 16, 2018 Elizondo’s father came down with a mysterious illness in which he was mostly paralyzed for about a month and completely unable to work. The health crisis temporarily debilitated his father physically, and was an emotional shakeup for the entire family. Elizondo shared that the experience “…was heartbreaking. My dad is a workaholic. He’s a lover of hard labor, and someone who is proud of the fact that he's a provider. And to be stripped away of that left my dad feeling very empty.”

A still shot from Merced Elizondo's short film 'Manos de Oro'

The experience caused Elizondo to contemplate his own relationship with his father, and from that, the inspiration for Manos de Oro arose. He said, “I was in the middle of writing something else and two weeks into that experience, my dad was in the hospital. I just thought, well, there's something here. Let me dig, let me dig. And that eventually became Manos de Oro. This film isn’t about my dad, specifically, but the story borrows from the truth of the kind of person that my dad is and the kind of person that Fernando is.”

Anyone who identifies as Mexican, Tejano, or Latinx in Texas will likely recognize themes in the film beyond the father-son dynamic. Through the character of Sergio, we see the traditional gender roles play out. The father is the leader of the family, which is primarily expressed as hard-earned income. As a young Mexican man, Elizondo is looking at the past to recreate the future and restructure what those roles look like. In this film, and within his own family, Elizondo is breaking out of the old paradigms and looking at what it means to be a Mexican man in 2020.

Elizondo’s experience in filmmaking prior to this project includes other short films, but Manos de Oro marks a new style. Technically classified as a long short film (short films are typically 15-25 minutes - Manos de Oro has a running time of 33 minutes), the story unfolds in a rich and detailed narrative. I had the privilege of screening it at home, and found myself surprised that I knew so much about the characters in the first 5 minutes. The film is engaging and contains glorious detail - without feeling laborious or overworked. I was moved by the frank emotion of it, and while the themes are clear at the outset, I was captivated and surprised by the story.

Behind the scenes. Pictured (L): Actor Julio César Cedillo, and (R) Writer/Director/Co-Producer Merced Elizondo | Photo Credit: Exploredinary

Elizondo developed the story from his own life, but also drew heavy inspiration from films in the style of French New Wave. This film contains a lot of firsts for Elizondo: it’s filmed in black and white, in Spanish, and with a strong Naturalism that grounds the fantasy life Sergio is experiencing while in the throes of his addiction and displacement.

About the film’s inspiration and style, Elizondo shared: “I have never shot handheld before – it’s gritty, it's ugly. But I think that was the point. I wanted to try something different because I was just inspired by films like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. Also French New Wave masterpieces from Francois Traffaut and John Pierre Mellville - they have this avant-garde sort of shooting – verite – it’s almost documentary-like. I really wanted to emulate that. It's cinema as reality and it's also cinema as fantasy because we see Sergio in these dreamlike states, and then in the blink of an eye, we break you out of it.”

Elizondo knew he needed a strong cast to tell this story. The project boasts lead actor Julio César Cedillo (Sergio), who has starred in major film and television projects including Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, Sicario, and Cowboys & Aliens. The role of Fernando is played by Jero Medina, whom audiences will also recognize from Narcos: Mexico. Elizondo shared that working with such experienced actors resulted in an extremely collaborative process in which he learned a lot about the art of creating films.

Manos De Oro is not available for public viewing at this time, as Elizondo is submitting the film to festivals around the world. In the meantime, follow the progress of the film and view Elizondo’s previous work on his Vimeo page.

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