Rodrigo Reyes’ new doc Purgatorio: A Journey into the Heart of the Border takes its metaphor of trial by fire seriously. Whether in scenes capturing the vast Sonoran desert with its searing heat that claims the lives of so many would-be U.S.-Mexico border crossers, or showing the burned out shell of a car whose victims of corruption and drug war violence we can only imagine, Purgatorio weaves an epic Dante-esque journey with flames of destruction constantly licking at one’s heels. But Purgatorio also represents a limbo, a morally vague, seemingly unending place of in-betweens, where clear solutions to the U.S.-Mexico crisis seem far off. Instead Reyes’ film is a poetic, if unflinching, depiction of the region and its inhabitants, permanent or temporary travelers in an existential voyage of survival. The film is a visually and psychologically intense, evocative journey. Here are eight ways in which it will totally blow your mind.
It’s concrete poetry for the eyes.
Angelic, gilded girls and boys, covered in gold-dust and swathed in tunics, stand silently and immobilely perched, holding signs that call out assassins, extortionists, and corrupt police alike. There’s no voiceover commentary for these images, the camera holds on each angel for a good while, and there are no fast-cuts that turn them into rapid-fire B-roll coverage to illustrate a narration bullet point. Instead, the poetic imagery and irony builds between them and other scenes of the vast, arid border landscape: giant landfills, abandoned sites, bullet-ridden cars. Like the words and imagery of poetry made more powerful by form, rhythm, and timing, so do the imagery and shot sequences fluidly edited in Purgatorio accumulate in a poetic composition. You are free to make your own associations and allusions in a rich framework of meaning.
All the formulaic stuff you learned about essay-writing will be turned on its head.
Forget intro, three solid paragraphs illustrating your main point, conclusion, blah blah blah. We are talking the classical French concept by Montaigne of an essay, “un essai,” which literally means a “try,” an “attempt” to examine a subject rather than just regurgitating received knowledge. So for Reyes, taking on a subject as weighty and multifaceted as the US-Mexico border can only be a try. You sense his curiosity, his attempts to forge some kind of coherent sense of things in light of his dual identities as Mexican and American. Taking a literary form and transposing it to film only frees things even more. It’s like getting a glimpse into a creative mind taking things in and spinning them around, the mind as a camera, dynamic and fascinating, or as the French say, a “camera stylo,” the camera as a pen to compose your thoughts with.
A crew of just three people captured these arresting images.
Reyes worked with a tight team that consisted of himself, cinematographer Justin Chin, and sound person Jose Inerzia to nimbly shoot the doc under often grueling circumstances, climbing sand dunes and 100 degree desert heat to capture the perfect shot, and doing it all day after day for four weeks along the border traveling in a beater Ford van. The result is a testament to the power of a tight crew and a posse that know just when to push, prod, pull back, and go all out to capture artistic excellence.
It's the love child of stunning still photography and dynamic cinematography.
Static wide shots that frame spans of the border fence like it’s a giant monolithic public art sculpture, tight shots of mechanical debris, fixed shots of the parched and cracked desert floors — these gorgeous scenes could easily stand on their own as still photography. But they work even more dynamically when juxtaposed with slowly moving camera scenes that pan across building materials stretching along in disuse or handheld scenes that gently sway like the fluttering fake wing feathers of a girl dressed as an angel. And the film’s editor gives each scene just the right amount of time for us to take each element in while weaving an amazing larger montage.
Sentimentality gets checked at the door (plus there’s no tip jar.)
There’s a troubling strain of artmaking that tends to make poverty and the victims of social injustice seem nobel. Even if well-meaning, it can dead-end in sentimentality instead of provoke thought and action toward changing the cycle of injustice. Reyes’ interviews with men attempting to cross the border show three-dimensional people who don’t flinch at their situation or the risks they must run. In voice-over narration Reyes also poses questions about what drives such migration and whether one can’t turn that drive to risk everything, at all costs, in another direction.
It doesn’t hide behind a matter-of-fact, fly-on-the-wall style of observation.
From early on, when Reyes offers a shot of a murder victim, and says in his narration that ironically this is the only victim he could find — since he and his crew stumbled across an atypical dry spell in the local murder rate — you can’t help but note the irony and self-implication of documentary recording. It makes us wonder, who is the most messed up? The person who committed the violence or the documenter of death and gore? What about us the spectators? They are all good questions, and open ones, in this doc.
History and politics make their presence quietly known (sans annoying Ken Burns-style voiceovers and archival photos.)
With a scene of two border crossers reading from a marker that designates the border from the Mexican side, we are reminded of the questionable historical validity of the border. We are reminded that the US gained a huge swath of former Mexican territory, over a highly dubious claim of Mexican aggression (let’s see, remind anyone one of the most recent WMD/Iraq incident?). No need to go into PBS-style history lessons; history is alive here.
Tough scenes land a solid, slo-mo punch of power, not a quick and dirty, cheap shot of shock value.
Whether preparing to shield my eyes from a tough scene of animal euthanasia, or caught off guard when a heroin addict is captured shooting up, I was ultimately surprised at how non-gory, and quietly intense those scenes registered. Maybe it was the right camera framing or the editing of scenes before and after that lent a certain calmness and dignity to the factual events happening before the camera. But, I never felt the whiplash of sick voyeurism and shock value that such documentation can sometimes have. Yes these scenes are tough to witness, but sometimes we need to confront the realities around us head on and not pretend that they don’t exist just because they are out of our direct view.
Purgatorio begins a national tour on Oct 3 in New York and Oct 10 in Los Angeles.