LA CIVIL Interview: Teodora Ana Mihai on Dramatizing a Mother's Living Nightmare

Contributor; Mexico City, Mexico (@EricOrtizG)
LA CIVIL Interview: Teodora Ana Mihai on Dramatizing a Mother's Living Nightmare

In La Civil, Mexican actress Arcelia Ramírez plays Cielo, a mother who lives a nightmare, unfortunately common in the violent Mexico of the cartels.

Cielo is intercepted at the beginning of the film by two young criminals – one of them played by I’m No Longer Here’s Juan Daniel García – who warn her that if she doesn’t give them $150,000 pesos and the vehicle of her ex-partner (Álvaro Guerrero), she’ll never see her daughter Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta) again.

Director Teodora Ana Mihai was inspired by the true story of Miriam Rodríguez, whose daughter was kidnapped in 2014 in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. The Rodríguez family paid the ransom more than once, to no avail. Confronted with the fact that her daughter had probably been murdered, Miriam Rodríguez assumed the role that corresponded to the authorities and began a tenacious investigation to identify those responsible.

Mihai is of Romanian origin and currently lives in Belgium. Her connection to Mexico began when she studied a couple of years of high school in San Francisco, California, where she made friends of Mexican origin. In an interview with ScreenAnarchy, Mihai mentioned that years later, when she was working on her first feature-length documentary, Waiting for August, she traveled to northern Mexico, near the Texas border, to visit her friends:

“I realized how much the situation of Mexico had changed. Of course the femicides are not a recent phenomenon, but the situation was not that spreaded over the whole country. I was advised to not leave the house after 7 p.m., my security could not be guaranteed. It was like a slap in the face.

"Since I was working on a project about Romania and children who have to live in very difficult circumstances, I started asking myself: how is it to grow up in northern Mexico? So I promised myself that after finishing Waiting for August, I would come back to Mexico and do my research. No matter if it’s documentary or fiction, I like to do investigative journalism to understand as much as possible and collect testimonies.”

screen anarchy la civil 1.jpg

Mihai's initial idea of focusing on Mexican children and adolescents changed when she personally met Miriam Rodríguez. Mihai recalled that she “started to document her life but very soon I realized that the project had to be reconsidered because the documentary was problematic. We were a small crew, but we needed bodyguards, then the bodyguards asked help from the armed forces, so we were basically traveling and functioning in convoy.

"I could not capture what I knew was going on and what I had heard from testimonies. It was a big frustration creatively, then on top of that, we were taking very big risks. That’s when I decided to use all that valuable information and work out a fictional story, that was definitely not a biopic but heavily inspired by the reality I had observed.”

When searching for an actress for the leading role of Cielo, Mihai listened to recommendations from industry people. This led her to think of Arcelia Ramírez, whom she knew because of a Mexican film she watched as a teenager: Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate.

“She has actually a tiny role in Like Water for Chocolate, but it made an imprint on me. I knew Cielo was a very heavy role, not only for the delicacy of the subject matter, I mean it’s one of Mexico’s biggest wounds, but also because in the script Cielo is literally carrying the weight on her shoulders because she’s in every single scene.

"I needed an actress who was not only extremely talented but also someone who was willing to put their all. I decided to send Arcelia the script, I wasn’t expecting an answer very soon because I know she’s a busy lady, but the answer came within two days. It was such a convincing and moving answer that I practically knew that I had my Cielo,” Mihai stated.

La Civil reflects various aspects of the complex problem known as the “Mexican Drug War.” Once it becomes clear that the criminals don’t intend to release her daughter, Cielo has to deal with ineffective authorities. Soon, the protagonist begins to investigate on her own and even watches and follows various delinquents.

It’s observed how practically her entire community is under the yoke of an unpunished organized crime. Mónica del Carmen, for example, briefly appears as a storekeeper and mother of a missing teenager, who’s also being extorted. That she’s reluctant to talk about these issues with Cielo is, certainly, understandable.

screen anarchy la civil 2.JPG

“That was my real life experience. This denial that people are living in, that nothing is happening. It’s a survival instinct, you need to find the strength to wake up every day and go to work and function,” Mihai commented and added that “when I would ask them about this war that was going on, a lot of people were like: what war are you talking about? It’s a very dangerous place to start believing that the war is normality and to start accepting to live with it. They were smart people, that’s just a survival mechanism. Fear paralyzes and perpetuates the situation.”

La Civil highlights a reality: on the side of the perpetrators there are usually extremely young people; in fact, one of the reasons why director Mihai decided to show some of the horror explicitly – like that first sequence at the local funeral home that has been turned into a morgue – connects with this: “It was a crucial question, how do I portray the violence? How much graphic violence do I need to show?

"If you notice, the violence is shown at very specific moments; a lot of the violence is left out or you see the violence after the facts. But for me it was necessary to show that this was going on because otherwise, maybe for an international audience, it’s just so unrealistic that the young gangsters that Cielo and her husband are terrified by, actually are truly dangerous even though they don’t look it. You can understand the psychology of our protagonist Cielo.”

It’s also clear that among the perpetrators, there are women. In Mihai's words, “the women in the film are part of both realities, they’re victims but not only that. I never wanted to make this a gender issue or a statement about genders because it truly is beyond that.”

Another important character in La Civil is Lieutenant Lamarque (Jorge A. Jiménez), leader of a group of soldiers who have recently arrived in the town. Lamarque decides, eventually, to unofficially assist Cielo, who is in grave danger due to her inquiries. These soldiers don’t hesitate to conduct brutal interrogations or shoot to kill, but it’s striking that Lamarque keeps his word and never represents another direct threat to the mother protagonist.

screen anarchy la civil poster.jpg

About this, Mihai said that in Romania they also have “a very difficult relationship with authority, a very distrustful relationship because of the communist regime and how many informers there were, families or friends informing on each other sometimes. That aspect was so familiar to me, I could really understand it.

"Lamarque, he’s actually inspired by a real life character, but not literally. In one of the testimonies I heard about people who worked for the authorities but in their experience, catching these guys and sending them to prison was resulting a lot in them being on the streets again within a couple of months because of the dysfunctional judiciary system. Like Cielo, Lamarque decides to take justice into his own hands. I didn’t want to make any statement about the military specifically, but about an individual who happens to be a soldier and who decides for himself that that is more justice than what he should be doing by law.”

Despite hints of catharsis and justice, in La Civil the nightmare has no end. Cielo lives firsthand the horror that endures in a Mexico turned into a mass grave. “I hear a lot of criticism, that Mexican cinema is always about violence, but what do you expect if it’s so in-your-face in the daily life?,” Mihai wondered and concluded:

“Let’s not be surprised that some filmmakers and artists still find it very relevant to speak about what they see every day. It’s almost an obligation to do it, until it stops being relevant. It’s a humongous problem but what art can do is raise awareness.

"It’s very important to expose children and youngsters to art because they learn to look at others with empathy. Art does humanize people.”

Zeitgeist Films is bringing La Civil to U.S. theaters. The film is now playing in New York at Film Forum through March 16 and at Sag Harbor Cinema through today (March 9), and today only at Digital Gym in San Diego, California. It will open at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles March 17. For additional dates and locations, visit their official site

Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Alfonso ArauÁlvaro GuerreroArcelia RamírezDenisse AzpilcuetaI'm No Longer HereJorge A. JiménezJuan Daniel GarcíaLa CivilLike Water for ChocolateMónica del CarmenTeodora Ana MihaiWaiting for August

Around the Internet