August 31, 2009

El Diablo y la Nota Roja (2008)

Seen with disdain and even repulsion by diverse sectors of the population (yet still read with great interest by practically everyone), yellow journalism has always been at the center of criticism because of its sensationalist nature, and its tendency to exaggerate, distort and exploit news. Mexican press developed a particular form of yellow press, completely devoted to death: the Nota Roja. Roughly translated as "red news" (because of its bloody content), the Nota Roja section in Mexican papers is characterized by its focus on accidents, crime, murders and suicides. While the degree of graphic content may vary (from prudish lists of accidents in more serious newspapers to the highly gory details of "¡Alarma!" magazine), Nota Roja exists in practically every Mexican newspaper. Fascinated by this direct and uncompromising approach to death, British filmmaker John Dickie decided to follow journalist Alejandro Villafañe, better known as "Diablo" ("Devil"), in his everyday search for bloody red news. "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is that chronicle.

In "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" ("The Devil and the Red News"), the eye of John Dickie's camera accompanies Diablo, Alejandro Villafañe, in diverse situations related to his job as journalist of the Nota Roja section of a local newspaper. Sorting cops, forensics and victim's relatives, Diablo takes pictures and collects notes about every case he finds, taking Dickie (and the audience) to discover the world behind the news of the Nota Roja. The film works as an interview of sorts, with Diablo explaining every detail of his trade in his very personal style. In this way, Dickie explores how the Nota Roja works, from the difficult job of photographing corpses to the writing of outrageous sensationalist headlines, as well as the complicated relation between the authorities, the press, and those involved in every case (criminals or victims). Also, between visits to crime scenes and the morgue, Diablo opens up a window to his life, and we get to know the man behind the gruesome photographs of Nota Roja tabloids. His family life, his personality, and how his work affects him. And us.

By following Diablo in his everyday journey, director John Dickie manages to make a very intimate portrait of the man and his atypical profession; while at the same time, explores the difficulties and challenges of said line of work. With a good dose of politically incorrect black humor, Dickie shows the world of Mexican crime news as it is, in all its crudeness, with Diablo as his guide through the blood and violence that fill the pages of the Nota Roja. While somewhat desensitized to that world, Diablo remains a fun man with a good sense of humor; and armed with his radio and notebook, Diablo takes his old VW Beetle and rides through the streets of his town (one of the many towns in the Mexican state of Oaxaca) looking for the next person who'll make the headlines of the newspaper. Despite the non-serious tone of the documentary, Dickie remains as objective and direct as possible, and even Diablo himself gets his fair share of criticism. Overall, the structure (divided by chapters, one for every headline Diablo writes in the film) is quite dynamic, and the movie is never boring or tiresome.

Nevertheless, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is not without its flaws, as even when the film flows at a nice pace for the most part; sometimes it does feel rushed, as if there had not been enough material for some segments of the movie (unfortunately, some of great interest). This also gives the feeling that something is missing, as while the editing (by Manuel Méndez) is for the most part good, sometimes the jump from chapter to chapter is too abrupt, as if the segment was incomplete. This result in certain details not being fully explored, like for example the fascination of people with Nota Roja articles. Granted, this could very well be outside of the scope of Dickie's investigation and the film's focus, but still, it's a question that tends to appear continuously through the film and that sadly, no concrete opinion is given in the subject (albeit certain ideas are thrown in a couple of interviews). Perhaps this was intentional, as Dickie was more interested in the figure of Diablo as a common man with a very uncommon kind of job.

In the end, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is a very interesting (and morbidly fun) trip to the bizarre world of crime news in Mexico.. Bold, harsh (a couple of scenes could be quite graphic for some) and very politically incorrect, John Dickie's documentary is an entertaining journey to this fascinating world in which violent deaths are part of the job, and where one has to lurk into the darker side of human beings to find the news piece of news. Maybe "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is not the most complete of documentaries, but the straightforward way it deals with its subject matter works great with the gritty mood of Nota Roja articles. Crude and violent, yet strangely human, "El Diablo y la Nota Roja" is an interesting view on our own morbid tastes, as perhaps everyone who reads the Nota Roja hopes not to know those photographed, and enjoys the secret relief that someone out there had it worse the previous day.


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