Saturday, November 2, 2013

Life on the Border

"We lost our very first language that connected us all. We tore it apart into a thousand pieces. And in the madness that followed, we discovered violence, hate and finally, separation." - Narration from Purgatorio

Purgatorio, directed by Rodrigo Reyes, is a look into life on the US/Mexico border. At first, this may seem like another discussion of the immigration debate, but the film takes us much deeper into the lives of these people as well as into our souls as human beings, giving this film a depth far beyond mere politics.

This is the second documentary for Reyes, a native of Mexico, who lived in both his home land and in California as a youth, as his family shuttled back and forth. That experience, along with his studies in political science as well as his work as an interpreter - first at a hospital and now in the courtroom - has given him a unique viewpoint for making this film. You realize this is a labor of love and his message is how we are all human beings that need hope in our lives. The evidence in this film is that many along the border realize that a better life for them is only a dream, not reality.

Reyes deliberately takes this film beyond facts in an argument about whether or not the border should be open. He talks to poor Mexicans as well as one government official as well as a number of Americans that deal with this situation, one patrolling the border, another working on identifying Mexicans that try to cross illegally - or have died trying.

At no point does Reyes ever give the identity of any of these people; this is clearly not a public news approach to the problem. Reyes here wants to give us a snapshot of the times, yet does not want the film bogged down in details. I would imagine this approach will frustrate some looking for answers, but to me, this was a fresh and proper manner in which to get his message across.

A major strength of this film is the striking cinematography of Justin Chin, who gives us a broad palette of images ranging from a lovely seaside setting with the crash of gentle waves to the dirt and grime of a dump lined with the twisted metal of abandoned automobiles, many of which are ridden with bullet holes. The bright, sunny visuals are in stark contrast to the despair of many poor Mexicans that populate this environment; one man speaks of how his life is the same every day and how he believes he is already dead.

At one point of the narration (written and spoken by Reyes), he states that while it takes courage to leave your home, sometimes it takes more courage to stay. I would have liked to have seen Reyes go into more detail regarding this point. It's a valid one, but he skims over this. It's a criticism, but about the only one I have of this film.

As did John Steinbeck back in the 1930 and '40s, Reyes links animals with people; this conjunction is especially apt with the poor. Both Steinbeck in many of his works as well as Reyes in this film seem to be saying that some view the lives of the poor in the same way as a dog wandering the streets. Reyes takes things further here, as one of the sequences deals in depth with the mechanics of canine euthanasia, as we listen to a man who puts dogs to sleep (we see the machine that is the tool of death, but thankfully, any grisly details have been omitted). At first glance, this sequence seems unnecessary, yet upon reflection, it makes perfect sense here, as life and death are mere moments in one's existence - be it a man or an animal; our souls seem to have been beaten down by the system.

Purgatorio does not take the easy way out and for that Rodrigo Reyes is to be congratulated. It's a challenging and at times, a puzzling documentary that has scenes that don't necessarily flow smoothly from one transition to the next. Yet, thank goodness that the filmmaker has opted to challenge us. The immigration problem is one thing, but our existence with our fellow man is another far more diverse and troubling topic; Reyes wants us to never forget that.

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