The acclaimed actor makes his directorial debut with a heartbreaking tale about troubled identity and the healing power of compassion
Abel is the directorial debut from actor Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Mr Lonely, Milk), and it tells the story of a troubled ten-year-old child with an undefined personality disorder who takes on the role of his absent father within the family unit. Taking place over one week, when the child's mother takes her son home from the local hospital in order to try and save him from being transferred to a psychiatric home in Mexico City, the film is a touching meditation on the trials of parenthood and the healing power of compassion. Abel’s small, damaged family indulge his patriarchal fantasy and for a moment it seems that things might improve for them all, at least until the children’s genuine father reappears on the scene and pushes the film to its nail-biting dénouement.
It's a stunningly original and at times dreamlike film that confirms Luna as a man as deftly masterful behind the camera as he is in front of it. We cracked open a cold beer with the director at the end of a long day of interviews to talk about absent parents, the brutal honesty of children and the shifting nature of identity.
Dazed Digital: Although Abel is delusional it is never made clear exactly what mental condition he is suffering from, why is that?
Diego Luna: I am not talking about a particular mental condition because I don’t want people to be distracted by that. It’s really more about the fact that when Abel needed his father he wasn’t there, and how he’s dealing with the absence. The film is a reflection on every decision we make as parents. Every single decision defines the life our kids are going to have and has an impact on who they are, and dealing with an absence, or any issue, as a kid defines who you become as an adult.
DD: In a way, his delusion is his brilliance...
Diego Luna: Well, kids can become a mirror and they’re a dangerous one because they magnify everything. You never really know how much Abel is in control or not, but much deeper in there is the fact that he is really an actor in a way, and that is why it is a very personal film. He is a kid who doesn’t know who he is, so he pretends to be someone else. It’s like with Russian dolls – you open the doll and there’s another one and another one and another one... Abel wakes up every morning and lives a different reality – a fantasy world he makes so real that everyone kind of jumps into it and lives it with him.
DD: He seems to get better when the family indulge his fantasy, and he is a far better father to them than his own is...
Diego Luna: It’s a comment that perhaps being a father is very simple, and that perhaps even a ten-year-old might be able to do it because it is really about listening. For a while, the whole family is happy – the brother has someone to play with, the daughter has someone to cry with and the mother has someone has someone to talk to.
DD: There is a very strong sense in there of the connection to the mother...
Diego Luna: Well, I believe that if you take a kid far away from his mother, you are basically unplugging the kid from everything that makes them a person. When Abel comes back to his family, it’s through love that he starts to wake up and it’s through that connection that he is able to help these people, It’s a perfect world he creates and, although I know it doesn’t exist, through the story I can say, ‘Look how easy everything could be if you got better just by seeing someone else getting better.’ If you were living for others then life would be easier – if you were making your brother happy then you would be happy.
DD: There is a strange sort of clarity to Abel in that sense...
Diego Luna: Well, clarity is the most difficult thing to have and honesty today is something that is difficult to find in people because we tend to think about everything too much – what the impact of what we say is going to have. When you have someone saying it straight with no regrets or anything it’s beautiful. For me, it was that way to shoot with these kids because if they are not happy, you’ll see it and there is no way to fix it. I remember on the first day of shooting I said to everyone, ‘I am really happy you are all here but if one of these kids comes to me one day and says they don’t want to work with you, you’re fired,’ simple as that, because that can’t be fixed.
DD: You had to deal with the death of your own mother at a very young age. Did you find your own identity through acting?
Diego Luna: Definitely. When kids asked me about my mother at school I would tell them she was somewhere else. I started to create characters or tell stories about her that had nothing to do with reality because I realised that it wasn’t going to make any difference – I realised that the one who didn’t know my mother was myself. I wanted to belong to a world that I thought my mother belonged to and through being in the theatre I kind of felt like I knew who she was, so that is why I started doing that. Through that process I started to be able to work out what I really wanted.
Now, I’ve realised through directing that it’s not just about performing for me, it’s telling stories that I really enjoy. Many times in the past I was acting for the wrong reasons. For a long time, I thought acting was all about the risk of the character – what the character was asking you to do and where it could take you, but it’s not about you, it has nothing to do with you... If you don’t believe in and trust the director then you shouldn’t do a film with them because its never going to be the film you want it be.
Abel is out on January 7