'El Velador': Beauty, despair captured in expanding graveyard
A review of the documentary "El Velador" ("The Night Watchman"), Natalia Almada's eloquent documentary portrait of a sprawling graveyard in Culiacán, Mexico, in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. The rapidly expanding cemetery has become the burial ground of choice for the country's slain drug lords.
The New York Times
'El Velador,' a documentary directed by Natalia Almada. 72 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.
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When Wallace Stevens wrote "death is the mother of beauty," he probably wasn't imagining anything like "El Velador" ("The Night Watchman"), Natalia Almada's eloquent documentary portrait of a sprawling graveyard in Culiacán, Mexico, in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. The rapidly expanding cemetery has become the burial ground of choice for slain drug lords.
Its rows of garish, domed mausoleums topped with crosses may be gaudy eyesores. But in Almada's calm, nearly wordless reverie, the cemetery, often shown at twilight, looks beautiful. Silhouetted in fading pink and blue light, the necropolis skyline stirs up a complicated mixture of awe and despair.
By day, the graveyard is a boomtown where workers can hardly keep up with the bodies arriving in fancy cars and hearses. The cries of grieving survivors are occasionally heard, but their faces are not seen, and Almada shows no corpses.
Not all of the dead are drug lords. One is a policeman who was corrupted by them. Most of the tombs have blown-up photographs of the occupants, many in their teens and 20s.
Even as crypts are being dug and the dead buried, life buzzes around the cemetery. Children and pets frolic among the tombs that devoted family members methodically clean and polish.
The image of an impoverished worker in torn flip-flops, perilously perched on a rickety ladder, speaks volumes about class divisions in a country that threatens to become a narco state dominated by a wealthy criminal elite.
"El Velador" is a nonviolent film about violence. The watchman who patrols the area listens stoically to the news about the drug war on his tiny black-and-white television set. The United States' role is briefly touched on in a television interview with a former American official who complains that the amount of money America has devoted to the drug war is paltry compared with the billions spent in Afghanistan. Other news, heard sporadically on car radios, evokes the social breakdown of a nation under siege from within.
At night, the racket of construction abates as the workers and the families depart, and an ominous silence descends. The watchman going about his rounds might be described as a silent witness to a national tragedy.