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‘El Velador’ paints shocking portrait of war−torn Mexico

Film Review | 4 out of 5 stars

Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 00:10

Mexican−American documentary filmmaker Natalia Almada’s “El Velador” — in English, “The Night Watchman” — paints a stark portrait of the Mexican Drug War’s impact on the northern state of Chihuahua.

Almada’s third feature−length film follows Martin, the night watchman for a lavish and continually expanding cemetery located outside of Ciudad Juárez, a city in Chihuahua, where murdered drug lords are laid to rest under extravagant and palatial mausoleums.

The cemetery and its workers live something of a double life. They have access to a heartbreaking, behind−the−scenes glimpse into the violence wrought by the drug war.

During the day, Martin witnesses the labor of construction workers who prepare large batches of graves for the next group of cartel capos to be murdered that week. He hears marching bands blasting traditional Mexican mariachi music at funerals while mourners bid farewell to their beloved family.

One of the movie’s most striking scenes centers on an anguished mother whose son is gunned down. As workers toil away in the shot, her grief−stricken wails — “My son!” — fill the background. As her voice echoes through the theater, viewers know that there have been and will continue to be innumerable mourning mothers and widows screaming in vain.

Another memorable figure in the documentary is a lovely, unnamed widow. Every day, she drives to and from the cemetery in an expensive sports car — no doubt purchased with drug money.

The young, beautiful woman then devotedly tends to her slain husband’s tomb, wiping its floors, washing its windows, replacing candles and laying flowers in front of his image. Meanwhile, her two children happily play tag among the mausoleums. For these children, sudden death is a fundamental aspect of life.

“El Velador” is a visually striking documentary. The amount of time the families of slain drug lords invest in creating and maintaining their loved ones’ final resting places is incredible. Crafted beautifully and intricately, and covered with steeples, crosses and gold embellishments, the mausoleums in the cemetery form rows that coalesce into a city of the dead.

These ornate edifices are enveloped in a silence that starkly contrasts the clamor from the nearby city. Every so often, the peace and quiet of the cemetery is interrupted by the ringing of bullets from Ciudad Juárez, posing the idea that even in death, these men are barely safe and at peace.

Almada provides no traditional narration or commentary throughout the film. Instead, most dialogue consists of clips from the Mexican news detailing the growing death toll in the war between the notorious cartels and the Mexican Army. Every once in a while, Martin engages in conversation with other cemetery workers, but their conversations focus entirely on death without seeming to play to any scripted narrative. The message viewers will take away from “El Velador,” and seemingly the message Almada intends to project, is that the Mexican Drug War just south of the American border is a failure. Per Almada’s vision, the war is a futile, endless cycle of violence, fear and death. It is shocking to see how desensitized and matter−of−fact Martin and his compatriots are when discussing the killings caused by the war. Then again, this lifestyle is all they have ever known, and it is most likely all they will ever know — unless the Drug War miraculously ceases to exist.

Nearly unhindered by conventional commentary, “El Velador” provides a window into the world of the everyday Mexican citizens who are watching a deadly battle unfold. Though it captures a unique set of circumstances in a very specific part of the world, the universality of human emotion apparent in Almada’s piece makes “El Velador” truly remarkable.

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