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.


June 12, 2009

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

One of the most fascinating creatures of folklore, vampires have had a constant presence in horror legends and stories through centuries. The enormous success of British author Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula" shaped the myths into one iconic figure that became the classic image of the immortal monster. The following century saw the vampire storming the new medium, cinema, becoming a popular subject in practically every decade in cinema's history. And it all began in 1921, when producers Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau got together in order to develop an idea Grau had been imagining since World War I: a vampire film. To achieve this dream, the producers hired famed scriptwriter Henrik Galeen to adapt Stoker's Gothic novel into a screenplay. However, Dieckmann and Grau were unable to get the rights for the novel, so Galeen reworked the story and set it in a fictional German town. Count Dracula became Count Orlok, and with director F. W. Murnau at the helm, "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" (translated as "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror") was unleashed.

"Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" begins in a German city called Wisborg, where young Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is an employee at a real state firm. Hutter is sent to Transilvania to visit the enigmatic aristocrat Count Orlok (Max Schreck), who wants to purchase a house in Wisborg and move to Germany. As he gets closer to Orlok's castle, he discovers that the locals are terrified by the mysterious Count, to the point that his driver refuses to take him into the Count's lands. A strange coach is sent by Orlok to pick Hutter, and so the young man finally meets his strange client. At the castle, Hutter only sees the eccentric Orlok by night, and he never sees the Count eating anything, so he begins to suspect that the Count is really the monster known as Nosferatu. One night Orlok admires a portrait of Hutter's wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder) and becomes fascinated with her. After revealing his true nature to Hutter, Nosferatu hurries his trip to Wisborg and takes his reign of terror to Germany.

Already known as a master of dark fantasy (having worked in early expressionist horror films such as "Der Student von Prag" and "Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam"), writer Henrik Galeen adapts Stoker's classic novel with great talent and literally makes it his own tale. Leaving out the typical Victorian focus on morality of the source (including the vampire hunter Van Helsing), Galeen enhances the Gothic romanticism of the novel by making the story not a fight between the more abstract concepts of good and evil, but an idealized duel between purity and corruption. Corruption is a central theme in the film, with Orlok, the Nosferatu, being not only the plague-bearer whose arrival to Wisborg brings death and disease with him, but also the evil corrupter who plans the destruction of the Hutters' happiness. Stylish, but imbued with a fluid rhythm (inherited perhaps, from the source novel), Galeen's storyline is very agile and dynamic; unfolding itself with an almost poetic pace that makes the story, as its title suggest, a real symphony of horror.

With films such as 1920's "Der Januskopf" ("The Head of Janus") and 1921's "Schloß Vogelöd" ("The Haunted Castle") in his young career, director F. W. Murnau was no stranger to supernatural themes such as those in Galeen's screenplay. Nevertheless, "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" would become one of Murnau's most important films, as along cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner and producer Albin Grau (who worked as Art director), Murnau developed a very stylish and unique visual look for his vampire film. While essentially an expressionist film, Murnau made choices that were different than the norm, like for example the use of real locations for the movie. This adds a very natural atmosphere that contrasts powerfully with the more expressionist details of the film, such as Nosferatu's striking appearance. This contrast works perfectly with the idea of corruption that's central to the screenplay, as the natural village gets consumed by the extremely stylish nightmare that Nosferatu represents.

In the iconic role of Count Orlok, German actor Max Schreck created one of the most fascinating figures in the history of horror. Thanks to the striking expressionist makeup and his subtle, yet stylish performance, Schreck gives life to a very unique vampire. Animalistic and predatory, his Nosferatu is a real creature of the night, embodying perfectly the idea of horror as both repulsive and captivating at the same time. Trained in theater, Schreck bases his work mainly in body language, creating a nightmarish figure that moves through the screen as if one of the expressionist shadows was alive, filling the screen with a haunting atmosphere when he appears on screen. As Ellen Hutter, Greta Schröder is remarkably good, being almost ethereal in her scenes and the perfect opposite image to Nosferatu's fierce figure. As Knock (equivalent to the novel's Renfield), Alexander Granach steals every scene he is in, as his overacting suits nicely the character he plays. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about Gustav von Wangenheim, whose hammy work is one of the films' downsides.

Filled with unforgettable, haunting images courtesy of cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" still stands today not only as a great horror film, but as a marvelous artistic achievement in general. Murnau's heavily atmospheric mix of harsh realism and nightmarish fantasy truly set the standards for Gothic horror, and almost singlehandedly defined the vampire concept in films. Granted, the technological limits of its time are visible, but the fact is that, more than 80 years after its release, the amazing way Galeen, Murnau, Schreck and everyone involved in the production gave life to Stoker's novel in such a powerful and emotional film is truly a monumental work. Unfortunately, producers Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau failed to secure the rights to the novel, and the Stoker's state launched a lawsuit against their company, Prana films, forcing them into bankruptcy and forcing them to destroy every copy. "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" was almost lost, but to our good fortune, copies survived in other countries.

Powerful, striking, fascinating, thrilling and in a word, supernatural, "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" went on to became a classic of the horror genre and a movie that has influenced influenced generations of filmmakers for decades. After "Nosferatu", Murnau went on to become one of the most important filmmakers in the world, moving from expressionism to a wide range of artistic styles, finally emigrating to America to direct several masterpieces before the arrival of sound. A legendary film by a legendary filmmaker, what Murnau and his crew achieved in "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" is simply what cinema is supposed to be: magic.

Watch "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" (1922)