Road movies, fictional and nonfictional, are for rich or resilient protagonists, with no right of complaint. If you can afford a car ride, or bum one, what’s your beef? It is rail movies (Orient Express class excluded) that are for the poor, the desperate, the huddled, the yearning. Bound for Glory’s train-hopping trans-Americanism; the teeming train roofs of western migration in Heaven’s Gate… Now comes the tender, grim enthralment of debut director Diego Quemada-Diez’s The Golden Dream, a picaresque Central American tale you will find also “picturesque” only if you have a tourist’s eye to human misery. The heavenly scenery – viaduct-spanned green mountains of northern Guatemala and southern Mexico – is a backdrop to hellish lives.
Quemada-Diez worked on three Ken Loach films, starting with Land and Freedom in the Spaniard’s home country. The apprentice’s own first act of sorcery is simple and compelling. The teenage actors playing his wannabe migrants – a Guatemalan boy and girl (Brandon López, Karen Martínez) aiming for the US-Mexican border, the young Indian (Rodolfo Domínguez) at first grudgingly allowed to join them – largely improvised their dialogue. We believe their hopes. We believe their horror as those hopes unravel. Train-roof refugees are soft quarry for everyone, we learn, from robbers to traffickers to abuse-minded cops or border guards. The three youngsters’ “golden dream” ends up battered, tarnished, barely recognisable – yet the film’s clever deployment of a principal leitmotif image (won’t spoil) delivers also a kind of frail consummation.