June 26, 2009

La Santa Muerte (2007)

Since the late sixties, an new religious movement began to take place in the south of Mexico, slowly growing until achieving national recognition in the early years of the 21st century: the cult of the Santa Muerte (literally "Saint Death"). Product of modern syncretism between Catholicism and ancient native beliefs, the cult of the Santa Muerte is based around the figure of Death, which is seen as an angel receiving its power from God, delivering justice to its devotees. The cult gained notoriety due to the fact that many criminals were devotees of the cult, relating the sect to organized crime in general. But what started as a sect, is certainly now a bigger phenomenon, and several movies have been done around the cult; some exploit its subject unrelentingly (Paco del Toro preachy horror film "La Santa Muerte"), others explore its complexities (Eva S. Aridjis's documentary "La Santa Muerte"), and others simply don't judge it and take it as what it is: another part of the Mexican environment. Carlos Poblano's 2007 debut film, "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" is one of those films.

In "La Santa Muerte" (known in English as "The Rite of Saint Death" and also as "The Saint of Death"), David Enríquez is Diego, a young man living between gangs and crime in a town near the border. Sent to prison after committing armed robbery, Diego discovers a new way to see life and death in the words of his cell-mate, Tijuano (César Sandoval), a convicted assassin for hire and devotee of the Santa Muerte. Under Tijuano's guidance, Diego discovers the beliefs of those who follow Death, and becomes good friends with the mystic assassin. Seeing in Diego his only friend, Tijuano trusts him the location of a huge amount of money he stole from a Cartel in his last job. Unfortunately, Tijuano's enemies murder him in prison as punishment for his betrayal; however, with the help of Tijuanos' lawyer (Susana Laborde), Diego gets released from jail. Now, having learned from Tijuano about the money, Diego becomes a follower of Santa Muerte and decides to avenge his friend, but it won't be easy for the young criminal to do it, as the rite of the Saint of Death is full of sacrifices.

Written by Patricia Rojas and director Carlos Poblano, "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" is essentially a crime drama framed by the whole mystique of the cult of the Santa Muerte. While the story isn't anything original, what makes "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" different from other films is the degree of respect it has for the controversial cult. Granted, it definitely isn't a faithful portrait of the cult's beliefs, as they are mixed with ancient legends and a touch of Carlos Castañeda's philosophy; but the story works because it never tries to be faithful. And it is with this lack of pretensions that the screenplay manages to become, if not a faithful representation, at least a honest rendition of the cult's mystique as seen by the outer world. Nevertheless, this care for having the aura of the Santa Muerte cult kind of hurts the film, as there are lengthy explanations that make the pace slow and tedious. There's a also a lack of character development, and the attempts of poetry by the narrative at times end up sounding pretentious, but as a whole the story is well told.

In his feature length debut, Carlos Poblano conceives an thriller that, imbued by the aura of its main theme, feels at times ethereal and atemporal. Despite being firmly grounded in the reality of drug traffic, gang violence and organized crime, the atmosphere in "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" feels surreal and dreamlike, rooted in the magic and symbolism of Poblano's reinterpretation of the Santa Muerte cult. The remarkable work of cinematographer Gustavo Gilabert is instrumental to achieve this mood, as for moments (specially in exteriors), Gilabert achieves scenes of great beauty. Unfortunately, not everything is perfect, as Poblano and Gilabert struggle to achieve this magic in interiors, and some scenes are either too dark or are simply too plain, completely void of that magic. The drastic change between the look of scenes is proof that the movie took years to be finished, but the good side of this is that the growth of both Poblano and Gilabert can be seen on screen. What is truly marvelous through the whole movie and worthy of recognition is the music, by Juan García.

Acting through the film is kind of average, as "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" was the first real film experience for most of the cast (some of them being real gang members). Nevertheless, the film has some nice surprises, such as César Sandoval's performance as Tijuano, Diego's best friend and spiritual guide. Sandoval manages to surround his character in an aura of mystery without becoming too much of a caricature, being captivating and very believable as both a shaman and a killer. It really helps that his character is one that gets some of the better development in the film, because for example, Getsemani Zamudio's role as Diego's girlfriend is sadly one of the most underdeveloped, and it downgrades Zamudio's good job. Very expressive and natural in her character, Zamudio does her best in the role, but unfortunately, it's a role that most of the time only requires to look pretty. Finally, David Enríquez as Diego is effective, although at times forced, specially in his narration of the story, which feels void of emotion and impersonal.

As said above, the rest of the cast ranges from average to truly bad, but for the most part, the quality of the acting is not the biggest problem in "El Rito de la Santa Muerte". The real problem is perhaps the writers' desire to explain certain elements (particularly those regarding rites and beliefs) via lengthy explanations in either the narration or in the characters' dialogs. While the effort is commendable, it would had been better to use a different way to explain things, because as it is, the film's pace suffers terribly, getting too slow and even boring when Diego explains every character's back-story or when Tijuano describes every step in the cult's rituals. Fortunately, this is experienced mostly in the first half of the film, because as the story unfolds, Poblano takes the story to a faster, more dynamic rhythm. In the end, a bit more of care in the screenplay's development would had helped the film a lot, because on the technical side, the film is of a great quality considering the extremely limited resources the crew had to work with.

It took several years for Carlos Poblano to finish "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" and unfortunately, it shows. Nevertheless, the final product shows not only the struggles the filmmakers had to face in this independent production, but also the development of their talents, as while some scenes look average and amateurish, others achieve a degree of quality comparable to projects with higher budgets. In the end, "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" may not be the most fortunate debut ever, but it's certainly not a bad one, as it's a movie that shows a lot of promise in those involved. An interesting take on the Santa Muerte cult, "El Rito de la Santa Muerte" is a fine film that, against all odds, manages to be entertaining until the credits roll. Hopefully, Poblano's next project will be a step up for his career and for independent Mexican cinema as well.


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