Artists' Television Access

Under My Nails, Cine+mas

Under My Nails, a Puerto Rican psychological thriller by Kisha Tikina Burgos and Ari Manuel Cruz, and Andrei Nemcik played to a packed house at ATA on Friday night as part of the Cine+mas Latino Film Festival. Under My Nails is gripping. I was on the edge of my seat, and I was sitting on a wooden stool in the very back of the room.

Burgos both wrote and starred in the film as Solimar, a longtime Puerto Rican immigrant living an isolated life as a manicurist under the overhead trains of the snow-covered Bronx. Her character is born of trauma—the film begins with an eerily cinematic suggestion of the violent deaths of both her mother and father. At her father’s wake, another child releases a green lizard into Solimar’s hair. This lizard haunts the narrative, lending an air of magical realism to this story that builds by omission. The film leaves things out, and this makes it unnerving, difficult to pin down.

Beautiful cinematography brings us from the bright-yet-bleak Puerto Rico of Solimar’s childhood to the brown and gray of winter in the Bronx. The camera relishes the details, from the bare walls of Solimar’s apartment to the bright red of the nail polish in the salon. The swinging cover of the peephole to the hallway is especially poignant.

Solimar has neighbors—a Dominican man, Roberto, and his Haitian wife, Perpetue. Their loud, violent sex literally shakes the walls of her apartment, and she becomes obsessed with them, crawling onto the fire escape to watch him slamming her against the wall. Then the green lizard, like a literary device, draws Roberto into Solimar’s apartment. There is circularity to the sex and violence; it feels almost fated, and when Perpetue disappears, it recalls the words of Solimar’s father: your mother has just gone away.

The plot builds. The tension builds. The characters are desperately flawed. There are complex overtones of language and culture; the tense relationship between Haitians and Dominicans plays out in the conflict between Perpetue and Roberto’s mother, and Solimar herself speaks almost exclusively in English.

There are graphic sex scenes in Under My Nails, but I was disturbed that it comes off as a hot and sexy movie, because this is abusive sex. It’s impossible to watch this and not think in terms of “forcible rape” and “legitimate rape”. Solimar is hot for abuse in a way that is silent and compulsive. It’s very dark, and I think that the treatment of the sex scenes doesn’t do justice to that. It’s too fun to watch. It might have been stronger if it went over the edge once, if the picture really became ugly.

The ending is open. Nobody grows or changes and you don’t go deep enough with any character to allow that—the viewer is shut out of the characters’ inner lives, catching a glimpse only rarely, when Solimar vomits in the toilet and Roberto’s mother tells her off, for example. This film is really good. I heard it’s going to play on HBO in a few months. You should look it up.

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