Editor’s Notes: Mateo is out in limited release this Friday, August 21st.
Matthew Stoneman, American-born mariachi singer and subject of Aaron I Naar’s incisive new documentary from XLRator Media, is an endlessly fascinating figure. He holds an equal passion for Latin music and Cuban ladies, and these infatuations define a life both sublime and solitary. His auditory compositions are heart-soaringly soulful, and will lead the viewer straight to the soundtrack. It’s a tragedy, then, that Naar opts to form what feels like a feature-length reality TV show, with all the large stretches of virtual inactivity that implies, around such a fruitful basis.
It’s certainly an unfiltered portrait of a deeply troubled man, but that frequently results in uncomfortable viewing.
It’s certainly an unfiltered portrait of a deeply troubled man, but that frequently results in uncomfortable viewing. Much of this relatively short doc consists of Mateo (as his Cuban counterparts have dubbed him) leering at South American prostitutes, neglecting his on-off girlfriend and possible biological son for flights of vacuous fantasy. By framing an honest account of his many struggles, both financial and emotional, Naar creates hugely unpleasant viewing. He should be commended for his endeavour to shed light on Mateo’s remarkable life. There are times, however, when selective editing can improve the audience’s impression of a documentary’s subject, and in turn the doc itself; this is one of those times. Even minimal context for Mateo’s unceasing lust would have markedly impacted the numerous insights Naar produces in his quest for authenticity.
The scenes of musical virtuosity recall last month’s beguiling Beach Boys biopic Love & Mercy, capturing the heady rush of creativity in doing what you love and seeing your dreams come into fruition. They provide the highlights of the entire film; both musically stunning and psychologically intriguing. Naar never delves into Mateo’s creative mind-set, but the flashes of inspiration in his recording sessions suggest a fervent, underserved talent in desperate need of a big break. The issue is the complete lack of engagement between those effortlessly enchanting sequences. There are only so many times you can show a ginger Caucasian singing mariachi music at Mexican restaurants before your film becomes wholly tedious.
There are hints of a far superior film in this middling one, which makes its narrative and filmmaking shortcomings all the more frustrating.
A general absence of narrative momentum in a documentary can often be excused by inventive visuals or unique points of view. The 2011 doc Samara, for example, has no clear story, but the striking visual flair and ethereal music make for a wonderful sensory experience. Sadly, Naar seems content to let the action (or lack thereof) play out in painfully objective terms. There are no impressive filmmaking techniques to marvel at or momentous events to keep the viewer interested. It’s a film where little happens (which, as mentioned earlier, is perfectly acceptable) and even less holds the attention.
There is a great doc in Mateo; one that needs a heavy edit, more stylistic daring and wider breadth to capture key moments rather than inconsequential details to reveal itself. There are hints of a far superior film in this middling one, which makes its narrative and filmmaking shortcomings all the more frustrating. Mateo is sporadically insightful and is gifted with a gem of a subject, which it completely squanders. In essence, it’s an infuriating watch.
Mateo is sporadically insightful and is gifted with a gem of a subject, which it completely squanders. In essence, it’s an infuriating watch.