Venice 2021 review: They Carry Death (Helena Girón & Samuel M. Delgado)

“Girón and Delgado make the viewer work for it, as They Carry Death can be impenetrable and cryptic, but those who embrace the mystery will be entranced by its solemnity and the heartfelt sadness in its tone.”

1492. A fateful year, as it marks the start of the conquest of the New World by the Old. Some also suggest that it is the start of the Anthropocene, the epoch in which human activity started to have significant influence on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. Both of these are reflected in the title and themes of They Carry Death, the debut feature of Helena Girón and Samuel M. Delgado playing in this year’s Critics Week. A poetic and at times opaque piece of contemplative cinema that is full of grief and sorrow for loved ones lost and a world that ceases to exist.

Three men have taken ship with Christopher Columbus to escape a certain death on account of the crimes they have committed. As Columbus’ fleet reaches the Canary Islands, the three of them jump overboard, taking a sail and a bag containing a mystery with them. After reaching shore they climb deep into the rugged mountains to escape the ship’s crew that comes after them, because “Columbus will not continue his voyage without his sail.” As they traverse the arid and hostile land, they speak of loves lost and mysteries unresolved. Elsewhere on the island a woman, still of the Old World, undertakes a journey through the same landscape of brambles and thickets to find an old healer who can help her save a younger sister who threw herself from a cliff, lovesick.

In terms of narrative there is not much more to They Carry Death than this one paragraph. But the film is imbued with a sadness, a deeply felt poetic lamentation for the ones we’ve lost and who we will never see again, so that it manages to coast through its 75-minute runtime without ever feeling stretched or less than captivating. In no small part this is because of Jose Alayón’s spectacular cinematography. His grainy stock paints the small figures against the barren cliffs in such a way that their magnificent surroundings seem to swallow them. The hostility of the landscape is strikingly rendered in a sequence showing volcanic eruptions, when nature rears its most terrifying head and They Carry Death suddenly has touchpoints with Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il buco, in which nature dominates puny human existence as well, even if less violently. Visually They Carry Death also reminds one a bit of this year’s Quinzaine entry The Tale of King Crab, another tale where someone of the Old World, albeit in a later era, tries to conquer the uninhabitable lands of the New World (in that case Tierra del Fuego).

As They Carry Death says at the end of the film, those ships of Columbus brought death indeed: colonialization, eradication of existing cultures, and the actual deaths of many people that stood in the way of the conquistadores. They Carry Death mourns these people, as an elegiac poem that remembers those who will never return to us, “not for even one hour.” Girón and Delgado make the viewer work for it, as They Carry Death can be impenetrable and cryptic, but those who embrace the mystery will be entranced by its solemnity and the heartfelt sadness in its tone.

They Carry Death (Helena Girón & Samuel M. Delgado)