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Fernanda Valadez, Juan Jesús Varela, and Astrid Rondero pose in front of a 2024 Sundance Film Festival backdrop.

“Sujo” Paints a Lyrical Portrait of a Cartel Gunman’s Son

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 19: (L–R) Fernanda Valadez, Juan Jesús Varela, and Astrid Rondero attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Sujo” premiere at The Ray Theatre in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Donyale West/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Annie Lyons

When he is only 4 years old, Sujo (Kevin Aguilar) loses his father to cartel violence. In the terrifying immediate aftermath, his aunt Nemesia (Yadira Pérez) desperately tracks him down and arranges for his survival in the Mexican countryside. It’s the first instance of many that we see how someone shapes the course of his life in the moving coming-of-age drama Sujo, by writer-directors Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez.

Sujo’s premiere on January 19 at The Ray Theatre in Park City, Utah, marks the pair’s return to the Sundance Film Festival. Collaborators for 15 years, Rondero and Valadez last premiered Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares) at the 2020 Festival, where it won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award and Special Jury Award for Best Screenplay. Sujo is also the first time they’ve worked with each other as directors. Together, they prioritize invoking deep feelings, grounding the film in the emotional contours of Sujo’s experience.

“All we tried to do is to tell every stage of his life through the many characters that changed him and made him who he finally is in reality,” Rondero says during the post-premiere Q&A. “I think that we used all the possible tools that we had to try to lure you into his skin and to see the world through his eyes.”

Adding to her thoughts, Valadez says, “One of the questions that we asked ourselves early on was: How would it be possible in the context of Mexico, in the context of cartel violence, for young men to escape the cycle of violence?”

Screening as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, the poetic film has two distinct halves, showing first how 4-year-old Sujo adjusts to life with the mystical Nemesia in her remote mountain home. The film then moves years ahead to follow a teenage Sujo (portrayed by a magnificent Juan Jesús Varela) at a crucial crossroads. Throughout, we see how the people surrounding Sujo help develop his morals, with a particular emphasis on women: Nemesia, his two best friends’ mother, and a professor. 

One of those aforementioned tools is the film’s use of static shots and minimal cuts. “We just wanted you to see what is happening and feel what is happening,” Rondero explains. “Sometimes when you move the camera too much, you’re trying to point things out, which I think we didn’t want to do here. We wanted at the end for you to feel like we’re making a portrait of this character.”

Though horrifically violent acts inform Sujo’s life, the filmmakers also choose to imply the violence rather than spotlight it. When asked about that decision, Rondero notes that it’s a question that she and Valadez have asked themselves a lot when shooting violence in Mexico. “I think that’s a secret that the victim and the perpetrator have, and we shouldn’t be there sometimes, so we can get out the most human part of both stories. I think that’s why we decided not to see it but just to feel it.” 

“I think that’s what we are experiencing in Mexico,” she adds. “All of us, we can feel that violence even though we’re not in [on] that secret.”

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.