Walking Distance: opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Friday June 23
: opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Friday June 23

Federico Sanchez (Luca Ortega) is a big man. To be more precise, he’s morbidly obese, and has already suffered (and recovered from) a heart attack that’s left him permanently anchored to his tumbledown Mexico City apartment.

Distancias Cordes (Walking Distance, opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Friday, June 23) depicts Fede’s hermetic existence with tenderness and respect, but of course, that isn’t all there is to the story. Directed by Alejandro Guzmán Álvarez, the film begins as a downbeat slice of neorealism and then transforms into an uplifting yet saccharine-free character study cum road movie.

Once a week, Fede’s sister Rosaura (Martha Claudia Moreno) and brother-in-law Ramon (Mauricio Isaac) drop by to break the tedium and confirm he’s still alive. The visits are uncomfortable affairs; it’s obvious sis wouldn’t be visiting Fede at all  — who she regards with an apparent mixture of disdain, disgust, and familial concern — unless she felt obliged to.

Tipping the scales at 450 pounds and in poor health, Fede relies on Rosaura for physical and emotional support. Rosaura, however, resents her role as caretaker for a man with no apparent future: though she’s willing to help out at bath time, occasionally enjoys reminiscing with him about happier times, and genuinely seems to love him, it’s easy to imagine her breathing a sigh of relief when he eventually joins the choir invisible.

Husband Ramon, on the other hand, actually likes Fede, and after he shares some holiday photos with him the story begins to come into focus. Inspired by Ramon’s humble snapshots, Fede digs up an old pocket camera, discovers an undeveloped roll of film, and embarks upon an exhausting journey by foot to the nearest camera shop, where he meets scowling teenage employee and comic book enthusiast Paulo (Joel Figueroa).

It’s not long before a three-way friendship grows between Fede, Paulo and Ramon and plans are hatched for a trip to the seaside, where Fede hopes to take a series of ‘artistic photos’ with a surreptitiously borrowed Nikon. Will Rosauro approve of the adventure, or will she put her foot down and veto his vacation?

While first-time screenwriter Itzel Lara’s script bluntly acknowledges Fede’s healthcare challenges, it wisely avoids pathologizing them. Lara also provides little in the way of backstory: though there are hints of a long-ago unrequited love affair, what we see is what we get — a sweet, likable guy who just happens to be seriously overweight.

The script’s mean-spirited characterization of Rosaura is Walking Distance‘s primary flaw. A tad more monstrous than necessary, Rosaura is depicted with much less sympathy than the film’s other characters. I guess the film needed a baddie.

Shot in painterly fashion by Diana Garay (whose compositions evoke both the pastel landscapes of Monet and 18th-century still lives), Walking Distance also features a terrific score composed by none other than star Ortega. As with his character, it seems there’s a lot more to the actor than meets the eye.

Footnote: Director Alvarez will appear after his film’s Friday and Saturday screenings for a Q&A session.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...