Despite the fact that there is a plethora of LGBT cinema being produced in Mexico – dating all the way back to the 1930s – it still feels like a relatively taboo subject for the mostly Catholic nation. Something that is whispered, rather than celebrated. And certainly, the love story at the heart of Heid Ewing’s I Carry You With Me is not one that is open and accepted. Blending intimate, dreamy character studies with a sobering dose of reality, Ewing captures not only lasting love but a poignant reminder of the impact of intolerance and fear.

Adapted from a screenplay by Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga, the film spans several decades in the lives of Ivan Garcia (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo Zabaleta (Christian Vazquez). Ivan, a kitchen porter with dreams of being a chef, is divorced with a young son. Gerardo is a charismatic teaching assistant estranged from his cattle-ranching family. The pair meet, by chance, in an “underground” gay bar and are drawn to each other. As well as chronicling their romance, the film follows the couple over 25 years as they battle to build a life for themselves both in Mexico and as undocumented immigrants in New York.

The dreamlike quality of the film is evident from start to finish. Vibrant, heavy colours feel overwhelming and provocative. Courtyards are lit in neon greens; kitchen are lit in a cool blue whilst their white tiles dazzle; walls are painted brick red and sunshine yellow. More often than not, your eyes are drawn to these whilst one of the protagonists appears in shadow. However, you are never fully allowed to get lost in the haze of colour, as the camera work draws you in at intimate angles. Close ups of eyes, lips, hands are used perfectly to document specific points in the two men’s relationship. It feels sensual and almost intrusive.

The film works because the chemistry between the two leads is so utterly believable. Espitia and Vazquez play off each other beautifully; their love feels incredibly authentic. So much is communicated through a pained look; a hand on a shoulder; a shuddering exhale. They really carry the film with an ease and credibility that you rarely see in cinematic love stories. As their relationship progresses, we get to see glimpses of the Mexican LGBT community (warm and friendly) and the attitudes of those not part of the community (everything ranging from visible disgust to outright violence). Their love burns under the surface; hidden in early morning embraces or behind courtyard doors.

Ewing also incorporates flashbacks to provide more blatant examples of homophobia. Ivan’s father catches him trying on a quinceanera dress and visibly wells up in disgust. Gerardo’s father abandons him in a cornfield, sobbing, in the middle of the night because he has heard others calling him gay slurs. It’s utterly heartbreaking to watch – on both counts – as these young boys learn to mask such a massive part of their identities; desperately seeking love and acceptance from their families.

That trauma continues as Ivan and Gerardo decide to “cross over” and begin a new life in America. Stuffed into airless trucks; trekking across unforgiving deserts; jumping off bridges. Their journeys are brutal and unforgiving. The petal pinks and periwinkle purples of the Mexican sunsets are swapped for the grey grime of a New York winter. The intolerance of their sexuality is replaced with prejudice against their nationality and migration status. The “land of the free” becomes just another cage (as their undocumented status means they are unable to ever return home).

Yet, in spite of all of this, we see Ivan and Gerardo not only surviving but thriving in the community they have built around themselves. Although it could be argued that the film quite suddenly leaps from their early immigrant experience to the present day a little too quickly, it feels equally reassuring to know that they have survived the odds. The photographs in the end credits sequence will reveal a little surprise about the second half of the film, where Ewing charts the couple’s experiences in the present day. It’s really cleverly done and will make everything that you’ve just watched all the more emotionally striking. It creates a completely unique way of delivering a compelling and endearing story.

With its lavish blend of realism and romanticism, I Carry You With Me is a poignant rendering of the immigrant experience and of love surviving the odds. Heidi Ewing breathes beauty and tragedy into Ivan and Gerardo’s story in the early half of the film whilst offering up commentary on the social issues that pervade their love story to this day. A thoroughly incredible watch.

Rating: ★★½

I Carry You With Me will be available from June 25, 2021