Tuesday, March 22, 2011

ND/NF ’11: El Velador

There is a new form of bling in Mexico: pimped out mausoleums. Tacky even in death, the drug cartels have kept the staff of Culiacán’s so-called “narco-cemetery,” quite busy. Documentarian Natalia Almada captures a sense of the everyday turmoil engulfing Mexico through the eyes of Martin, the cemetery night watchman in El Velador (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2011 New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Setting out to make “a film about violence without violence,” Almada takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, quietly observing the comings and goings in and around the Jardines del Humaya cemetery. Oftentimes, Almada’s scenes raise questions they never answer. For instance, viewers will wonder about the circumstances surrounding “Mercedes,” the young widow of a slain police officer who tends to his shrine in a suspiciously expensive looking marble-floored home. Indeed, Almada’s strategy is designed to keep us at arm’s reach. We see funeral parties approach “El Jardin,” but rather than confront the mourners’ raw emotion, she focuses on the coconut peddler outside the gates.

Perhaps, the most striking sequences of Velador involve the nightly TV and radio reports of each day’s carnage. Like the “before” scenes in Robocop, they present a litany of horrors that suggest if the cartels have not already won the war on drugs outright, they certainly have the whip hand. Clearly, the Mexican media has little patience left with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, reminding listeners several times of the 21,915 narco-related deaths the country has witnessed since he assumed office.

Almada’s intent to avoid actual depictions of violence might be laudable, but the resulting film is not simply bloodless. There is little that constitutes action of any kind. Instead of provoking outrage, Velador has more of a lulling effect.

Clearly, Velador addresses an issue of critical importance, but Almada’s oblique perspective might not be the most efficacious. Still, its unvarnished portrait of a state teetering on the brink of complete lawless is a timely wake-up call. Indeed, it is conceivable we could soon find our southern neighbor dominated by a criminal enterprise, not unlike Hamas in the “Palestinian Authority” or a Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah. Defiantly unhurried, El Velador is truly for a select documentary audience, but it is perfectly in keeping with the programming aesthetics of ND/NF. It screens this Sunday (3/27) at MoMA and the following Tuesday (3/29) at the Walter Reade Theater.