Directed by Natalia Almada
An unusually quiet exploration of Mexico's drug-infested economy, Natalia Almada's documentary El Velador is a tug of war between sociopolitical objectivity and human empathy. For 70-plus minutes, Almada's searingly sharp digital cameras—most of them stationary—austerely observe the loneliness of a vast Culican cemetery where slain warlords are enshrined in marble, glass, and stucco. Bare-chested men with clay-encrusted sneakers suck on cigarettes as they erect tombs for the latest shoot-out victims, the bodies of which arrive with convoys of weepy women and limos; meanwhile, the cemetery's middle-aged watchman patrols the area, protecting the candles, flowers, and photographs lain within each gangster's opulent mausoleum from vandalism.
Almada's style is lyrical journalism, a non-fictive sub-genre usually characterized by placid, picturesque surfaces and tragically (or wryly) complicated subtexts. The recent Mexican quasi-doc Alamar, for example, which patiently catalogues a final fishing trip between a father and his soon-to-be absentee son, similarly affected a bifurcate tone: the backstory provoked us to read the setting's sunny sea-scapes as elegiac. But El Velador's non-judgmental focus on the underling custodians of Culican's palatial graves eventually and gently morphs tragedy into advantage, and cadavers into currency. Unlike so many other depictions of lugubrious human toil, Almada accumulates hers into a portrait of unorthodox class survival.
Granted, the socio-economic divide in Culican is such that the men who guard spire-tipped houses for the dead sleep on wooden planks suspended by upside-down buckets—but they get by. The hubris of murdered Mexican criminals is providing posthumous work to an entire subset of masons, laborers, and vendors who can only blink, scowl, and chuckle before their deceased employers' ridiculous totems. By the middle of the film, we're torn when we hear news reports tallying up the day's casualties in violence epicenters like Ciudad Juárez: We're encouraged by the suggestion of further employment for the penurious watchman and others, even if we must mourn the senseless violence upon which they are dependent.
Opens June 14 at MoMA