A dazzling work of non-fiction cinema, Eugenio Polgovsky’s “Tropic of Cancer” brings an artist’s eye to the hard-scrabble existence of families who survive by selling desert plants and animals by the side of a superhighway. Trained as a photographer and armed with a digivid camera, Polgovsky makes his vision of the poorest of the poor in Mexico’s San Luis Potosi state (located on the global parallel known as Tropic of Cancer) as much a non-verbal, existential essay as it is a social document. Pic will elicit strong reaction on its fest road trip from Sundance and Rotterdam to Mexico City and beyond, before tube play draws more eyes.
Without prelude, pic drops viewers into the dirt and cacti, where Ramiro Lopez and Israel Castillo (all subjects are unidentified onscreen) hunt rattlers for their prized skins. Snakes are gutted, their meat cooked for food or fed to caged birds of prey, then their skins are hung to dry. The images are of people living in the early 21st century, but it may as well be the 11th.
Polgovsky, as both helmer and lenser, is constantly aware of this contrast. His shooting style emphasizes the presence of his camera in the lives of people living a hunter-gatherer existence, perfectly captured when young Gamaliel Reyes aims his slingshot directly into the lens. The modern-ancient conflict also arises in such stark settings as a shack home where a boy watches a cheesy TV gameshow or the rudimentary stand built from tree branches where items are sold alongside the adjacent highway with its river of big trucks roaring past.
Intentional lack of commentary or any other standard docu informational devices compels the viewer to observe closely and arrive at personal conclusions; repeated closeups of animals in cages will be read by some as cruelty, for instance, while others will see the difficult images as part of the film’s anthropological view, much in the tradition of Jean Rouch.
But there’s no mistaking Polgovsky’s well of emotion for these desperately poor families, summed up in a luminous nighttime image of an incredibly wrinkled old lady, Placida Sanchez, as she laments, “It’s rough work to live … ”
Polgovsky (with sound designer Enrique Greiner) delivers the desert’s natural sounds, the caged animals’ terrified and terrifying screeches and the highway’s assaulting noise. A transfixing and deeply affecting organ prelude by Cesar Franck fades in and out, with the kind of ghostly spiritual effect reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s use of Bach.