Morelia International Film Festival review: Sanctorum (Joshua Gil)

Somewhere in the Mixtec sierra, a group of men and women work trimming marihuana. A truck driven by their supervisors returns them to their anonymous town. As they travel, a military car stops them, asking for a fee. After a brief discussion they go their separate ways without reaching an agreement. Once the workers are back in the anonymous town they express their resignation about working for the drug trafficking cartels. They’re aware their activity is illegal, but they don’t seem to have an alternative. The settlement is controlled by narcos, and there aren’t any other job opportunities around.

One day, a cryptic, thunderous sound comes from the sky. There is no explanation for it.

Joshua Gil’s Sanctorum portrays a phenomenon that can be widely observed throughout Mexico: impoverished towns being kidnapped by the mafia, which has now become an important employer mostly in rural areas. The militarization of the country over the past decade has failed to suppress drug-related violence, but instead produced a troubling number of massacres and human rights violations by the State. This situation has led to communities – including several indigenous ones – having no choice but to create militias to protect themselves from military and drug-related violence. Self-defense movements have been frequently used as scapegoats for crimes committed by the very groups they fight against.

A school teacher talks about leaders of the Mexican Revolution and the labour-protection laws to a dozen students in an ascetic classroom. Rural teachers, often leaders in their communities, were politically targeted through reforms in the past two presidential periods, having performance constraints imposed on them by a government that has never provided them with basic infrastructure for public education. Sanctorum renders a community completely detached from the notion of state or social contract, as authorities are not only distant but a negative force towards the people’s needs.

A killing awakens a conflict between local militia, cartels and military. Despite the deep, proud roots of the local people in their land, they’re forced to commence an exodus. We’re already dead.

Staying away from miserabilism or morbidity, Sanctorum addresses the sociopolitical conflict in Mexico through the perspective of its original people. Like many other enlisted natives, a soldier lives a dilemma: he is now prosecuting the people of his own town. Gil decided to record most of the film in the Mixtec language, placing the spectator as an invader of this sanctuary.  And the landscape is another central character in the film: a monumental force of nature that decides to awake an apocalypse as answer to the misdemeanors of its cursed children: humans.

As the story advances, the presence of Mesoamerican cosmogony takes over. Gil is conscious of the strength of symbolic elements in local culture, such as stoicism, masks, and the rituals of death. The third act, starting with a funeral, is an exquisitely crafted sequence of mythological elements about humankind, their role on Earth, and death. Gil himself, together with Mateo Guzmán, lensed the film. Experimenting with time lapses, grainy film and haunting CGI elements, Sanctorum is yet another overwhelmingly formal achievement of Mexican cinema, more effective in its visual language than in its storytelling, but an undisputable cinematic experience nonetheless.

Man views the world through suffering,
he walks like a lost child,
not knowing what he’s looking for,
not knowing what he has.