purgatorio posterOne thing you should know before watching Rodrigo Reyes’ documentary is that it isn’t an objective work. Rather this is a meditative piece designed to make us experience the filmmaker’s personal feelings about the Mexican border.

Purgatorio follows the filmmaker as he ventures along the border, from Tijuana to Juarez, meeting various figures from both sides of the fence. While this subject has been tackled many times, what’s different here is the stylistic approach. Instead of delivering a bare-bone journalistic entry, Mr. Reyes created a fine visual piece that advances slowly at an almost naturalistic pace. At first, it might look like all those aesthetic transitions were purely gratuitous but soon you realize that they allow the spectators to breathe between each – heavy – sequence.

The film starts quite typically with two men getting ready to jump the fence separating the US and Mexico – they left everything behind and have dreams to make money. However it quickly takes a darker turn, from a drug addict to two old women saying criminals should be burned. We also get to visit deserted towns, a shelter where animals are put to death, an asylum, a children cemetery and so on … As you might have already guessed it, the title of the film describes some kind of desolated area, a last outpost where dreams get broken and where lost souls get stuck, hopelessly.

Mr. Reyes also crosses the border a couple times, meeting a priest helping immigrants, an American coroner collecting anonymous bodies and a Minuteman making sure illegals won’t find their way. Beside the beautiful photography, the main strength here is that the director lets everybody speaks freely, without being judgmental. As a result, every encounter brings something interesting to the table – even the Minuteman with his amusingly simplistic vision of the world; And from all the ideas we hear, the most intriguing might arguably be if Mexico wouldn’t be better if all the efforts made to cross the border were instead used to develop the country’s own resources.

Of course some will argue that Mr. Reyes’s vision is mostly pessimistic and not fully representative of the current situation. While I do agree that his interpretation is monochrome – there are some positive things happening at the border whether it’s in terms of culture, music or food – I respect his thematic choices because it never attempts to be anything else than what he experiences. However, what bothered me is that too many times he brushes with strong themes without exploring them. For example, he shows us a children cemetery, a dog getting put to sleep, a crazy woman locked behind bars, the victims of police brutality and organized crimes, but he always stays in the back, never really explaining what’s going on. While, as an Angelino familiar with Mexico, I know that most of those scenes are used in a symbolic way, for the rest of the world those sequences might look like unanswered questions making Purgatorio an unsatisfactory experience for them. Mr. Reyes’ influences are obvious, from Wim Wenders to Werner Herzog, but what’s missing here is a meaningful narration clarifying those dark, beautiful images. I sense that the filmmaker might have tried to create some kind of abstract work and I embrace that effort. However, when you have such a strong message to carry, you should make sure your work is accessible to most otherwise it lessens its impact.

Director: Rodrigo Reyes – Running Time: 1:20 – Year: 2013 – Country: Mexico

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.