Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 1:42 pm 
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A clash of images and rituals

The Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias is drunk on sound and images. He enjoys sliding between color and black and white and different size formats, between still, wide pans and uptight agitated coverage of intense local gospel meetings amped by drum beats, depicting a clash of Catholicism and West African mysticism.His use of sound early and late in Cocote, his debut feature, isn't just ethnographic but radical and dramatic. In purely cinematic terms the viewer shares the intoxication of this interwoven ethnic, ritual, and visual blend - until it begins to clog the intended narrative a bit. Because there is a narrative, and an intensely driven, even if blocked one.

Alberto (Vicente Santos), the stifled, conflicted protagonist, a tall, awkward black man, is a gardner on a wealthy estate. He is also an evangelical Christian. We see only the wide, distant shot of the very large pool, which bookends the film. News of his father's death takes him to his rural "pueblo." Here he learns his father has been brutally murdered, decapitated, probably by a policeman. He is moved to revenge. But that goes against his Christian faith. So does the requirement that he attend pagan ceremonies rooted in Dominican Vodou that are part of the local obsequies for his father.

Never mind that Alberto is blocked morally and emotionally. The film itself is sidetracked by a wealth of documentary footage of those ceremonies and of impassioned, repetitive preaching that the director must have, understandably, thought too good to leave out, but somehow does not have quite the skill to include and still maintain narrative rhythm and suspense.

The synthesis of ethnographic documentary and scripted drama is an intoxicating but uneasy one. There is a situation here, more than a plotline. The real locations and people never cease to feel alive and exotic, but the revenge story keeps getting submerged, and it doesn't feel right. But it isn't entirely wrong either, though: Alberto is being urged to revenge by his family, but it goes strongly against his gospel Christianity, so he really is stuck. Perhaps if Alberto were stronger as a character all this would work better. As it is, as a first feature by a previous maker of a documentary and several shorts, this is a promising sign of ambition and passion that's been justifiably compared to the films of Glauber Rocha and fiction of Roberto Bolaño.

Cocote is a study of class and power. After an hour of glorious images, documentary vibrancy, and narrative stagnation, Alberto meets up with someone who may be his father's killer, a cop who explains that helps but means nothing against the powerful. It sounds as violent a world as anywhere in Latin America, as Mexico among the cartels.

The climax feels rushed into the last fifteen minutes - though there is a beautifully ironic, and differently documentary, final sequence of rich folks talking falsely sociable nonsense around that big pool.

I]Cocote,[/I] 107 mins., debuted at Locarno Aug. 2017 in the Signs of Life section, winning the Best Film Award, and the film has been in a half dozen other international film festivals, including Toronto, Hamburg, Mar del Plata and Miami. It was screened for this review as part of the 2018 edition of the Museum of Modern Art-Film Society of Lincoln Center series, New Directors/New Films. A Grasshopper Film release.

In New Directors/New Films:
Tuesday, April 3, 6:15pm [FSLC]
Wednesday, April 4, 8:15pm [MoMA

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