Santa Fe International Film Festival: ‘Robe of Gems’ Review

Don’t fuck with the cartel—or the cicadas

All too often in New Mexico, we are confronted with another brutal missing persons case. In certain swaths of Mexico, the populace would thank the old gods and the new for such few cases. And so it is, someone gone missing, that offers the scene-setter and, alas, one of the final concrete pieces of story in well-known Mexican film editor Natalia López Gallardo’s directorial debut, Robe of Gems.

We learn of this unaccounted-for after Isabel (Nailea Norvind) moves with her husband and children into a dilapidated Mexican countryside villa once occupied by her mother. We learn of little else thereafter. That’s because, in Gems, López Gallardo makes clear with the quickness that she favors mood, vibe, ambience over plot. Sure, at times it feels like the tale may drift into one focused on cartel-driven kidnapping, showing it as oddly commonplace, un-shocking. (Everyone in Gems is either cartel-employed or cartel-adjacent, and López Gallardo by no means apologizes for gang bloodlust—there’s even a devastating scene in a government office in which families are called up to bureaucrats’ desks to briefly discuss their missing loved ones, depicting the ritual almost like a trip to pick up food stamps.)

The film never goes all the way there, though, or anywhere else, for that matter. Instead, the dedicated viewer is treated to an incessant, but luxurious soundscape of cicadas, police sirens, wood-chopping and house music. It is a masterclass in mixing. And damned if López Gallardo can’t keep your eyes glued with a follow-shot or a half-tight zoom on two women’s hands and their salad plates—never faces, never eyes—as they discuss how parents invariably destroy their children.

To confess, reader, we were lost 15 minutes in, at least in terms of trying to sort the whos, the whens, the whys. But that’s likely the point, and the scene in which the Mexican town’s police chief (Eugenia Salazar) searches for her cartel-aspiring son in a landfill—only to discover a different corpse—won’t likely leave us soon.

The boy’s not there, but he’ll get his soon enough.


+Out-of-this-world sound mixing; unexpected follow-shots

- Poorly edited; narrative too thin

Robe of Gems

In Spanish, English subtitles

Directed by López Gallardo

With Norvind and Salazar

Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 118 min.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.