Every country has skeletons in the closet. Of course some are more transparent with their past sins than others, but in many cases it takes years, even decades of struggle for a nation to begrudgingly acknowledge its misdeeds of generations past. Many might be surprised to learn that even peaceful, harmonious Costa Rica — “La Suiza de Latinoamerica” — with its progressive energy policy and total lack of a standing army, once carried out extrajudicial assassinations of political prisoners as it teetered on the brink of all-out revolution. In fact, many Costa Ricans are unaware of some of the tragic incidents that stained their own country’s history in the last century.
In an effort to recover this historical memory, brothers Ernesto and Antonio Jara Vargas explored one particularly nefarious massacre at the hands of government officials in the new documentary El Codo del Diablo, giving the incident a depth and breadth of investigation that it had never previously been afforded and reopening the conversation around the murders for a new generation of Ticos.
On December 19th, 1948 five Costa Rican citizens and one Nicaraguan who were members of the local Communist Party were kidnapped by army officials and taken to a river bend — El Codo del Diablo — where they were summarily shot and dumped into the river. After one of the bodies was discovered floating downstream days later, the perpetrators were tried and sentenced to prison, but ultimately managed to flee justice. It is widely speculated that contacts in the government aided in their flight.
El Codo del Diablo approaches the history of the massacre through a variety of techniques, employing recreations, interviews and archival materials that are pieced together with a poetic eye and stylistic flair that offer up both a personal and historical vision of the events, and makes the incident more tangible than ever before. Cinematographer Alejo Cristósomo’s masterful eye elevates the film’s images by imbuing them with symbolic weight as the evocative score adds unsettling atmosphere.
The film’s trailer comes time and again back to the image of a train penetrating deep into the night, its path lit by a powerful lantern situated at its head. Perhaps it’s the train that the kidnappers took toward that notorious river bend nearly 67 years ago, but its also an appropriate metaphor for a duo of filmmakers who have taken on the task of penetrating deep into their country’s dark history, lighting the way toward truth with this small, but important film.