In Oliver Stone's "Savages," the action is bold, bloody and almost cartoon-like in its excess. "El Velador," on the other hand, is mostly non-narrative and contemplative in its documentary approach.
Almost everything we see in "El Velador" occurs at a cemetery in Cualican, in the northwest part of Mexico. Filmmaker Natalia Almada has her camera quietly observe the tending of this dry, dusty place: grave-digging, a funeral, and especially the coming and going of the night watchman.
The cemetery seems filled with suspiciously new-looking mausoleums, which is our first indication of the toll of drug-related violence. And that widow tending her late husband's tomb is not an elderly lady but a young woman, with a toddler playing amidst the stone monuments to youthful, violent death.
The film doesn't have narration, or any exposition. A couple of times we hear radio reports about an outburst of cartel violence, or a worker will relate a story he heard about the latest shooting.
This isn't a "60 Minutes" report on the subject, but a mood piece. A very sad mood piece. The days go by, the night watchman checks in for his work, the eerie silence descends on the evening.
Seventy-two minutes is just the right length for Almada to create this portrait, and the cumulative effect is strong; the business of death offers not only sadness, but a strange chronicle of how that business creates a world:
The builders have their work, putting up these mausoleums (which look notably more expensive than the night watchman's room), the fruit vendor sells his mangoes and coconut juice during the funerals.
The people who pass through these frames appear resigned, except for the wail of a distraught mother we hear in one funeral sequence. There may be a lot of new gravesites, but they are part of an ancient ritual.
Almada returns to the repeated image of the night watchman watering the dirt around the cemetery entrance. Maybe he's watering to keep dust down, we don't know. But the futility of spraying water on this sun-baked land is a fitting illustration of the immense futility of the violent cycle we don't actually see in "El Velador," but that looms behind it like a death's mask.
"El Velador" (3 stars)
A non-narrative documentary that observes a cemetery in Cualican, Mexico, where the cycle of drug violence has resulted in bright new mausoleums being built. We see no violence, only the aftermath of the business of death, in images of new gravesites and the people who tend them. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.
Showing: Northwest Film Forum.
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