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‘CODA’ star Derbez returns to Mexico with school drama ‘Radical’

By AFP - Oct 31,2023 - Last updated at Oct 31,2023

Actors Mia Fernanda Solis, Eugenio Derbez, Jennifer Trejo and Danilo Guardiola attend the press junket for ‘Radical’ in Los Angeles on October 19 (AFP photo)

LOS ANGELES — Eugenio Derbez, the Mexican comedian who earned global acclaim in the Oscar-winning US drama “CODA”, returns to his native country with a new film set at a failing school in a gang-ridden border city.

“Radical” focuses on the true story — first told in a viral article in Wired magazine — of a teacher who used unconventional methods to revolutionise an under-funded primary school, and inspire its most gifted students to dream of lives outside Matamoros.

“I already had the intention of doing something dramatic, but I couldn’t find the right opportunity,” Derbez said in an interview with AFP.

“And when the story of ‘Radical’ came into my hands, I said ‘this is it.’”

The Spanish-language movie, which hits US theatres on Friday, won the audience award at the indie Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Derbez plays Sergio Juarez Correa, a teacher who decides to return to his hometown, in a bid to improve the lives of students growing up surrounded by drug gangs, violence and poverty.

He adopts techniques not found in any teaching manual, as he tries to overcome the total lack of resources or funding of a school which, in real life, is located next to a giant garbage dump in the city of Matamoros.

“It’s a very raw film, it doesn’t disguise reality,” said Derbez.

“But it is also a film that inspires. Because this teacher — despite living in those conditions, in such a violent environment, despite having everything against him and having no resources — with pure imagination, with pure ingenuity and desire to move forward, manages to change the lives of all these children.”

Derbez previously played a high school choir teacher in “CODA”, which won best picture at the Academy Awards in 2022.

But the new role is “something very intimate, very personal”, for Derbez, said director Chris Zalla.

Initially “it was a panic for Eugenio”, who is a major star in Mexico, but is better known for comedic roles with elaborate costumes and props, he recalled.

But “I think we are seeing another Eugenio,” said Zalla.


‘Not right’ 


The inspiration for the film came from a 2013 article in Wired magazine, entitled “A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses”.

The magazine cover showed Paloma Noyola, a student of Juarez Correa’s who lived next to the dump where her father worked, but who demonstrated a special gift for mathematics.

She is played in the film by Jennifer Trejo.

Also depicted are Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis), who is interested in philosophy but is under pressure from her mother to drop out of school and help raise her younger siblings, and Nico (Danilo Guardiola), who is slowly being co-opted by a local gang.

Many of the young performers in the film previously had limited experience acting in front of the camera.

“Some of them lived in the conditions in which we were filming, so it was something very familiar to them,” said Zalla. “It was not so much acting, more living what they knew.”

Trejo told AFP that many of her friends have endured similar struggles to those of her character, Mia.

“I have a friend who had to stop studying because her mother has many children that she has to take care of,” she said.

“That is what we see every day and we have normalized it. Well, it is something that is not right because we have to study.”

Guardiola added: “It’s not just in Mexico — you can see it in Spain, you can see it here in the United States. It’s sad.”


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