Saturday, October 20, 2012

el velador

Writes Roger Ebert: The Mexican drug cartels have inspired countless films, but never one as final as Natalia Almada's documentary "El Velador." After this experience, everything else seems trivial. There's nothing like death to make further discussion unnecessary.

With visual purity and simplicity, the film centers on the routine of the night watchman, or el velador, of a fast-growing cemetery favored by Mexico's drug millionaires. It is the most fashionable address for the dead. During the day, the cemetery is a busy construction site, its laborers racing to keep up with the demand. At night, it becomes a ghostly necropolis.

We follow a taciturn middle-aged man, whose name is never given. He arrives at dusk every day in a beat-up old truck and settles into the watchman's shack. Thrown together out of discarded building materials, the shack is surrounded by crypts of two or three stories tall, which are topped by domes, floored with polished marble, decorated by statuary and invariably displaying photographs of their occupants — some holding automatic weapons.
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Writes Nick Schager in Slant Magazine: In the vein of Sweetgrass and Foreign Parts, El Velador fixes its concentrated gaze on a Culiacan, Mexico cemetery where the bodies of the country's drug lords lie in well-manicured mausoleums. The nation's heart of darkness, this locale is a place at once untouched and defined by violence, a condition director Natalia Almada conveys through wordless views of the life that continues on amidst the dead: the titular night watchman, quietly hovering about when not listening to, or watching on TV, news broadcasts of the nation's ongoing military-cartel warfare; workers in dusty split shoes toiling away at the construction of these final resting places; and the daily appearance of shiny hearses and luxury cars carrying mothers who wail for their fallen sons. Posters of the dead, all young men flashing tough expressions from the great beyond, line the area, as a young, beautiful woman mops the floor of her cop husband's tomb while their daughter hops and skips around the area, instinctively treating this familiar environment—a home for both those in the ground as well as above it—like a playground.

Almada's attention to sound—the wind blowing across the foliage-destitute land and through the still-incomplete buildings; the shuffling of dogs wandering the area; the hammering, clanking, and rustling of the workers' efforts—creates immediate, almost spiritual engagement with her milieu and its inhabitants. Similarly, the framing and cutting of her generally static compositions conveys not only raw emotion, but fills in the very contextual information that isn't relayed via traditional narration or textual background. Political concerns are addressed with a TV report in which a former U.S. official claims that the Obama administration must do more to help the Mexican government combat its narcotics-industry crisis. More pressing and evocative, however, is the way in which the nature of these people's specific hardship is conveyed through spartan aesthetic means. News stories about economic ruin are almost superfluous after sights of workers' calloused hands and lined faces performing menial labor, as well as after juxtapositions of class and wealth disparities, such as with images of poor workers hanging chandeliers and paving floors of glitzy crypts, only to then—as with the night watchman—retire to a wood plank-on-empty-tubs bed.
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