In February of this year, the third feature by Alejandra Márquez Abella, El norte sobre el vacío (Northern Skies over Empty Space), celebrated its premiere at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival in the beloved Panorama section. Together with Issa López, Tatiana Huezo, Fernanda Valadez, and Natalia López Gallardo, Márquez Abella is one of the most prominent members of a new generation of Mexican filmmakers who are building on the legacy of Alejandro Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. In contrast to the fabled tres amigos, in this crop of contemporary filmmakers, female voices dominate. Heirs to the radical filmic pedagogy of Lucrecia Martel, they are reinventing filmic language and have made their way as screenwriters, producers, actors, editors, and directors. Their films signal that an epochal shift is occurring in Mexico. 

Northern Skies over Empty Space features a lone cattle ranch in the rough and arid landscape of Tamaulipas, not far from the U.S. – Mexico border. These borderlands straddle both countries, forming a space that transcends national boundaries. As Northern Skies… shows, it is here that Mexican vaqueros, or cow wranglers, taught Anglo settler colonists their skills, and the mythic cowboy and with it the Western were born. In Northern Skies…, time grinds to a standstill; people go about their lives observed by the poisonous frogs, snakes, deer, cattle and other animals that the camera often stops to linger on, as if to say that they will be there when everyone has disappeared and there is no more history. Violence is a recurring theme, mostly manifest as an underlying threat that produces fear, anxiety, and uncertainty in a slow crescendo that leads us to the film’s grand finale. 

The geographic proximity of Tamaulipas to the United States creates an intentional affinity to that most American of genres, the Western. Indeed, the unique way in which Northern Skies over Empty Space redeploys this genre’s conventions and iconography creates something genuinely new. Heroism, courage, and bravery, the prime virtues of almost all protagonists in classic U.S. Westerns, come up for scrutiny here. There is nothing clear-cut or black and white in this world. Everything is ambiguous; and everything is questioned, especially notions of gender and race. What is more, in contrast to Hollywood’s insistence on a clear moral divide between those who defend all things good and those purely motivated by greed and lust for power, in Márquez Abella’s film the lines between victim and victimiser, the good and the bad, are blurred. 

Northern Skies over Empty Space

Northern Skies over Empty Space revolves around family patriarch Don Reynaldo (Gerardo Trejoluna), who gathers his extended family at his ranch to celebrate Easter. A hunting expedition, which opens the film, soon clues in viewers that the self-assured Rosa (Paloma Petra), a maid, is more than a mere bystander. It is her shot that kills a formidable buck, but she lets Don Rey bag the trophy and collect the applause – a secret well-guarded by both to maintain his role as patriarch. The trail of blood of the slain animal marking the way home to the ranch is just one of many ominous signs that more serious bloodshed will follow. Sure enough, soon real predators pick up the scent. Meanwhile, the patriarch strives to uphold peace, tradition, and the unity of the family, all the while a generational rift is opening up between him and his children, especially his oldest son, who wants to leave behind the ranch and the myth of the borderlands.

This plot summary may create the false impression of a unified narrative, but in fact major plot points remain opaque, especially the relationship between Don Rey and Rosa. For Márquez Abella, a coherent storyline was clearly secondary to creating an atmosphere that is at times mysterious and ominous. Yet this sense of slow dread and foreboding is repeatedly interwoven with surreal and playful moments. Soon after Don Rey and his family have been put on high alert by the visit of malandros (bad guys), the older son, who refuses to take the patriarch’s place at the helm of the ranch, organises a children’s birthday party. He hires a troupe of clowns and entertainers in various disguises and an Easter bunny. That same Easter bunny returns unexpectedly a day later, when Rey is already holed up and ready to defend his compound, only to retrieve her forgotten cell phone – a scene that mixes the hilarious with the harrowing and thus captures in a nutshell the absurdity of Rey’s decision to single-handedly take on the bad guys, as if here were John Wayne.

Márquez Abella cleverly uses the sound design to create suspense, as does the film’s score. As she explained in an interview, 

the music we use is inspired by actor Gerardo Trejoluna (who plays Don Rey) practicing his accordion, which he had inherited from his father. With Tomás Barreiro, my composer, we injected this music with electronic effects and in the process blended natural sounds and artificial sounds – creating electronic goats, so to speak. The idea was to capture what the universe might sound like, emphasizing the small scale of us humans. 1 

Along the same lines, her camera plays with unusual perspectives and distortion to suggest altered realties. The frequent cutaways to the animals looking on, and the equally immobile, penetrating gaze of the mounted hunting trophies convey the sense that our worldview is too anthropocentric, and that Rey is clearly missing the signs that change is inevitable. Almost imperceptibly, Rosa emerges from the shadows, to which her role as maid in the family has relegated her, and she begins to take up more screen time and more space within the shot itself, as she moves from the margins of the frame to the centre. At the film’s climax, she moves into the centre of the drama – a position, viewers now understand, she has occupied from the very beginning when she shot the buck that Rey could not kill because his hand was trembling. 

The film’s attempt to undermine traditional notions of masculinity and femininity that have heretofore underpinned family life are of a piece with the director’s activist agenda in Mexico. For years, Márquez Abella has been a key player in spearheading the Mexican Ya es hora movement, modelled along the lines of the United States’ #MeToo movement, condemning gender violence and advocating for gender parity in the film industry. The stakes of this movement became glaringly obvious in 2021, when massive women’s protests rocked Mexico, forcing President Manuel López Obrador to barricade the Presidential Palace. 

The shifting role of women during the last decades is also the focus of the previous two features by Alejandra Márquez Abella. Semana Santa, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2015, and which won a Special Jury Award at Fribourg Film Festival, Switzerland in 2016, revolves around the process of creating a new family: Dali (Anajosé Aldrete Echevarria), mother of eight-year-old Pepe, takes her son on a vacation in Acapulco with her new boyfriend, Chavez (Tenoch Huerta). But instead of bringing them closer, their beach holiday brings out things in each of them that threaten to pull this emerging family apart. As in Márquez Abella’s subsequent films, the location plays a major role. Mexico’s fabled beach resort is a place that is supposed to make everyone happy. Through a sensitive and powerful mise en scène that fully immerses viewers, Semana santa exploits what happens when that feeling does not fully emerge. Particularly through Dali’s character, the film addresses the complexity of modern Mexican women. As the director commented, “Women of my generation, grown women, often have the problem of living in a perpetual adolescence. My protagonist is someone who is comfortable being a daughter but not a mother.”2

A very different type of woman is at the centre of Las niñas bien (The Good Girls), Márquez Abella’s sophomore feature, which premiered at TIFF in 2018 to rave reviews and garnered 14 nominations and four wins at the Ariel Academy Awards, Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscars. Sofia (Ilse Salas) is a mother of three and married to a slick and sleazy businessman, residing in a mansion in the capital’s posh neighbourhood of Las Lomas. Unbeknownst to Sofia, her husband’s business is on the brink of ruin, because the Mexican government, under President José López Portillo, is no longer able to service its international debt, leading in short order to a dramatic devaluation of the peso and massive inflation – events that briefly flash up on the television screen, but that go unregistered by the arrogant socialite and her circle of friends until the consequences hit home. 

As in Northern Sky over Empty Space, tell-tale signs, including a water shortage, declined credit cards, maids complaining about unpaid salaries, and an upstart new class suddenly making its appearance and mocked for their bad taste, announce that not all is well. The dizzying camerawork, with its frequent use of mirrors and reflections, brilliantly captures the play of maintaining appearances, and the insularity and make-believe world of this well-healed elite who is oblivious to the hardships faced by most Mexicans. Instead, they indulge in vacuous pool-side conversations about fashion, hairstyles, and gossip. As the wife of a powerful man in Mexican society who cannot stand on his own two feet when the economy collapses, Sofia’s story is one of both power and powerlessness. As a trophy wife, she lords it over the staff at the country club, and the servants in her house. But the dire economic straights that they suddenly find themselves in makes her finally confront her own utter lack of power. 

The film is based on Guadalupe Loaeza’s influential 1987 book, Las niñas bien, a collection of stories which delve into the vacuous and consumer-obsessed lives of elite Mexican women, which was followed by Ricas y famosas, a collection of 89 photographs taken by Daniela Rossell of her friends among Mexico’s elite. Shot between 1994 and 2001, these photos show them pose in their homes in the clothes and trappings of their choice, flaunting their wealth, bad taste, and ironically celebrating their lives as caged trophy wives. The scene in Northern Skies over Empty space where the Easter bunny gets up in the middle of the night to take a selfie of herself next to the deer trophies mounted on the wall could not more aptly summarise the make-believe world unveiled by Rossell.

Both Semana santa and The Good Girls are set in the 1980s, a period that predated the historical events and developments that have since then impacted Mexico in dramatic fashion, most importantly NAFTA, enacted in 1994, and the Mexican and US governments’ respective war on drugs. These events also provide the backdrop of the Netflix hit series Narcos: Mexico (2018-2021), beginning with the rise of the Guadalajara drug cartel in the early ‘80s. Márquez Abella directed two episodes for Season 3 of the series, taking her spot along such distinguished Mexican directors as Amat Escalante and Alonso Ruizpalacios, Colombian Andi Baiz and Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor and star of the original Narcos series (2014-18), which was set in Colombia. While the overt violence and macho bravado that marks much of the show is clearly of no interest to Márquez Abella, its overall rendition of how the lines between good and bad are increasingly blurred is close to Northern Sky over Empty Space

She is currently writing her first fiction television series, “La Liberación,” based on the #MeToo movement’s critique of the film industry, and developing her next feature, “La Triste.” She is also working on another collaboration with Netflix, this time a feature film devoted to Mexican space shuttle astronaut José M. Hernández3, Miles Away, which will be Márquez Abella’s English-language debut.4

Director Alejandra Márquez Abella and her cast Paloma Petra and Gerardo Trejoluna

The following interview was conducted in Spanish on February 12, 2022, during the Berlin Film Festival.

Unlike your first films Semana Santa and The Good Girls, which were aimed at a more popular audience, Northern Sky over Empty Space challenges viewing habits. It takes on both the Western and art house cinema. How do you position yourself vis-à-vis a popular, accessible cinema and a cinema that makes demands on the viewer? 

When I look back on my films, I notice that they have evolved a bit. You can repeat the same thing, but from very different perspectives. It is not about my dislike of cowboys or upper-class women, but about finding the form that fits the content. The Good Girls is a softer, more delicate film; everything happens under the table, everything is subtle. There is nothing direct. It’s all about optical illusions. In this new film, set in Tamaulipas, close to the U.S border, it’s very different. It was impossible to be delicate or subtle, as everything in Tamaulipas is very violent. It’s not only that there is crime, but even the climate, with its temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit feels violent. There are snakes, tarantulas, and extremely poisonous frogs. Even the vegetation is violent. Nature is like a force that overcomes you. It’s a violence that is in your face. You notice the Herzogian effort it took to make the film; it literally was us against nature.

The stories in your last two films are based on real events. The Good Girls is set during the financial crisis of 1982, while Northern Sky over Empty Space is based on the true story of the businessman, rancher and recreational hunter Alejo Garza Tames, who became a national icon when he fought a duel to the death with Los Zetas in 2010, after refusing their demand to abandon his ranch. What was your interest in this event?

The story of Garza taking on the Zetas cartel alone is very archetypal. I was drawn to it because it’s a story that has happened countless times throughout Mexican history. One could even say that it is a classic of the Mexican Revolution. My film is inspired by this story, but not based on it. I am very intrigued by the fact that people favour ‘real stories’, as if fiction were not important. 

What I found most impressive about the real story is that Garza fought the drug traffickers in pyjamas. The only thing I wanted to film was that [laughs]. But I did not do it because you can never really represent things the way they are, and I did not want to offend Garza’s family. 

But it’s also the kind of story that underlies all Westerns. The Western has been fundamental for the birth of modern masculine identity as we know it. It not only represents but underpins the construction of patriarchy. It is not that the Western merely captured that – it created it. It shaped the values that we associate with masculinity, such as courage, bravery, heroism, etc. The story on which the film is based contained all these elements. And you can tell that story only as a Western and not in any other genre. I have no doubt that Garza had an obsession with John Wayne, so fiction shapes fact as much as the other way around. But beyond that, Garza’s face-off with the Zetas is part of the culture of Northern Mexico. It’s an identity.

Preparing for the shoot, we watched a lot of Westerns, and I thought this film was going to be a classic Western. Now that I see the completed film, I would say that it is not only playing with the form, but actually taunting the classic Western. We’re laying bare the way in which the Western has shaped the way we tell our life stories.

How do you think Mexican viewers who know the story of Garza’s grand stand will take the film?

Badly [laughs]. That’s why I insist on distancing myself from the true story.

In classic Westerns the good guys always win, but in Northern Skies over Empty Space this is not so clear.

But who are the good guys? The experience of being in Tamaulipas forced us to delve into this question. ‘Am I good, am I bad?’ – I don’t know, because we were shooting in a space where nature is very violent. 

You call the men that enter the farm from the outside los malandros, which means bad guys or outlaws. Why did you not want to reference the violence of drug cartels explicitly?

When you are in Tamaulipas, the bad guys are there, but you do not know whether they belong to category a, b, or c. It’s very difficult to see who is good or bad (as it is in life in general). I remember one time when we were driving around in a dinky car scouting for a location of the film and our scout saw a police patrol in the distance, and as he accelerated towards them, he exclaimed, “I need to talk to the bad guys.” He needed to ask them for permission to film and for everything else. But as the police patrol saw us accelerating towards them, they sped away from us. So he was actually chasing the police whom he considers to be the bad guys. And they, in turn, were afraid of us and ran away – pretty crazy, no? The police were speeding away from a dinky car, afraid we were the bad guys. So that’s the whole problem in a nutshell. It’s very surreal.

But culture in general is violent, beginning with the way we eat, how we educate our children. Really everything is very violent. For example, nothing grows in Tamaulipas, so you depend on the pig that you’re raising and that will be slaughtered so you can eat. You could not even consider being a vegetarian there. It is not an option.

As his name implies, Don Rey (which means king in English) seems to be the central figure of the film. He is the patriarch; he retells time and again the story of how his family established the hacienda and how he killed a puma, which places him at the heart of the narrative. Yet Rosa is actually the key figure and takes up more and more of the frame.

To be honest Rosa simply stole the film. Her first real line of dialogue does not occur until halfway through the film. For much of the film, she is very much in the background, yet she slowly emerges from the shadows and in fact takes centre stage. She too is heroic. That was not a conscious decision. Actor Paloma Petra, who plays Rosa, is a force of nature, no doubt. 

Rosa acts, while Rey only seems to be telling stories all the time and cannot even shoot straight. Rosa is the one who actually kills the deer he was hunting at the beginning of the film. One wonders whether she shot all the deer mounted in the living room. 

Remember the scene in John Ford’s The Searchers, when the women are on the porch, waiting for things to happen? It is like they were waiting for the bad guys to arrive; something is bound to happen. In her maid’s uniform, Rosa resonates with the position of the women on that porch. Like them, she is on the porch when Guzmán [one of the two man trying to extort Rey] arrives. But then she steps in front of his truck. So, I was nudging and even taunting the Western.

There are so many Latin American films in which maids are relegated to the margins. They are almost invisible. When they do claim centre stage, such as in The Second Mother (Anna Muylaert, 2015), they do so in a feminised role. But here the maid is more macho than the machos. We read that you are part of the women’s movement. Is this taunting of the Western part of your feminist activism?

Perhaps that’s my feminist impetus [laughs]. Yes, Rosa hates her uniform. And she is always angry, even furious. And she burns the tree where Rey has gathered them to tell his origin story, and thus she breaks up the myth of the family. 

She lays bare what Rey’s wife makes fun of when she alludes to Rey’s ‘so-called’ grandfather who established the hacienda, and the ‘so-called’ puma that Rey shot. 

Stories are a way of ordering and placing people; they compose a physical and emotional space. Patriarchy is a story. We try to underline this in the film through our family portraits, which show how everybody is assigned a place or how everybody knows their place. 

Northern Skies over Empty Space

In the film Rosa begins in the shadows, completely out of focus and she ends up a hero. And this is a bit what is happening with the feminist movement in Mexico right now. As women, we’ve always been behind the scenes and out of focus, and now we’re advancing every day, bit by bit. The recent massive women’s protests, and especially March 8, 2021, which was very violent, shocked Mexico and is now known as “el golpe” – the coup. The women’s movement is in our hearts. Our aim is to always talk about gender, but also to go beyond the obvious. With Northern Sky over Empty Space I don’t want to merely click the box “feminist film.” Change needs to happen and not remain on the surface of things. We must go much deeper. Our stories need to change. Patriarchy used the Western to buttress itself. In Westerns the world is black and white; there are good and bad guys. When we talk about violence, we always point away from us. But in fact, we are part of that violence. We are corruptible. And many of our actions make us do violence to life on this planet. We are the product of that violence. The same thing happens with feminism; it gets to a point where things are either good or bad or black and white. Patriarchy versus everything else. 

Lately, I have been questioning myself a lot whether being congruent with your ideas is actually a privilege. Just think of Rosa, and how she survives everything that is happening. She does what she has to do. Period. It’s not like, ‘Rosa is good or bad.’ We have to get to the point where we understand that we’re all trying to do what we can do. In this world we’re doing only what we can do: in our way. Managing our powerlessness. That’s why I have been opting for a non-punitive feminism. And to go back to The Good Girls, it’s not true to say that women are only oppressed. There you see how women use power, even though on another level they are also powerless. We’re all dealing with our power and our lack of power. And there is also agency in the lack of power. And that is what we’re saying about Rosa – she is very powerful, because she is not powerful. You see that in the challenge she faces by taking power.

Parts of the new film reminds us of Lucrecia Martel’s La ciénaga (2001).

Ah, Lucrecia my love! [laughs]. She is a pedagogue of the cinema. She has taught me how to use sound, she’s a genius exploring the possibilities of sound. It’s so easy to be solemn, and to make an entire film in that mood and come out looking okay. Lucrecia gave me the freedom to be playful. To introduce the Easter bunny into the film! 

Yes, the bunny is surreal when she returns to the hacienda to retrieve her cell phone. The performer is still in the bunny’s costume, which she had worn for the children’s birthday party, and she arrives when everyone was expecting the arrival of the bad guys. What is the bunny’s role in your film? 

She plays with the suspense. She arrives in her ridiculous bunny outfit when Rosa and Rey were expecting the malandros. But she is also the fairy who will help Rey redeem himself right before dying, when he asks her to tell his son that he loves him. And that’s all that matters. If he would have told his son at the right time that he loved him, perhaps what happens afterwards could have been avoided. This is something which he should have said much earlier, but he is a victim of patriarchy. He chose not to follow his heart; instead, he adhered to a certain idea of manhood. And that is where the Easter bunny comes in. She grants him this last gesture right before Rey and Rosa’s deadly duel with the bad guys. The term duelo captures this crossroads well. Because in Spanish duelo means both the duel that you’d find in a Western, but it also means mourning something or someone, and the healing that comes when you give in to that profound sorrow.


  1. “Berlinale Meets: Alejandra Márquez Abella in Conversation with Jenny Zylka.” Uploaded 02/04/22. https://www.berlinale.de/en/photos-videos/videos/vod.html?p=1&filter=panorama&view=130706. Accessed 02/10/22.
  2. Interview with the director at Fribourg Film Festival, Switzerland, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29XhQL2dxnI. Accessed 03/03/22.
  3. Hernández life and achievements are indeed much deserving to be told onscreen: https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/nasaandyou/home/jose_bkgd_en.html

    Accessed 03/15/22.

  4. Boris Kit, “Alejandra Márquez Abella in Talks to Direct Biopic of Mexican American Astronaut,” The Hollywood Reporter November 20, 2020. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/alejandra-marquez-abella-in-talks-to-direct-biopic-of-first-mexican-american-astronaut-exclusive-4094458/. Accessed 03/14/22

About The Author

Gerd Gemünden, author and editor of 11 books, is the Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College. His most current projects are a short monograph on Kleber Mendonça Filhos’ Neighboring Sounds and a longer study on realism and the supernatural in contemporary Latin American cinema.

Related Posts