For a film that depicts the filthy, dangerous work of building the second level of Mexico City’s Periferico freeway, the unlikely beauty of Juan Carlos Rulfo’s “In the Pit” is just one of the surprising complexities of this latest in an extraordinary wave of Mexican nonfiction cinema. More an inquiry into what makes working people tick than a study of the project itself, the pic highlights the human dimensions involved in any huge public project. Sundance jury winner for top world doc, “Pit” will be prized on the fest circuit, as well as high-end Euro and Latin American TV nets.
Brief intro notes that Mexico City teems with more than 3 million cars, prompting the building of the Periferico’s soon-to-be-completed second deck, which Rulfo filmed from March 2003 to December 2005. He selects a single crew, filled with characters like good-natured “Shorty” and more sour-faced “El Grande,” who laments that the guys get none of the credit for what is the modern-day equivalent of the anonymously-built Gothic cathedral.
Without it being underlined for effect, these two men begin to represent differences in how Mexicans view themselves and their country. Shorty has a loose live-and-let-live attitude to his life and work, while El Grande treats Rulfo’s camera like his own bully pulpit, arguing that “you don’t succeed in Mexico without corrupting yourself.” A female night guard has a mystical perspective, convinced the ghosts of the many who’ve died on the project haunt the place. Occasionally, the pic departs from the work site to observe the men at home, which sometimes means a farm far from the car-choked megalopolis.
The crew works in subterranean pits built to shore up the pillars that support the second deck, as well as high above to insert thousands of steel rods to reinforce the concrete columns and blocks that comprise the deck. Without pausing a moment to question what appears to be sub-standard safety conditions, Rulfo simply and more powerfully looks at the work being done. This is cinema grounded in the conviction that audiences with their eyes wide open will draw their own conclusions.
But when Rulfo wants to command attention, he does it grandly, as in the breathtaking final shot, a bravura and exquisitely composed six-minute-plus helicopter scan over the entire Periferico project. If freeway construction can be viewed as a metaphysical act, this is the ultimate proof. Leo Heiblum’s pulsating music and Samuel Larson’s dense, fascinating sound editing rewardingly compliment Rulfo’s electrifying visuals. Pic boasts some of the most readable subtitles recently seen — exceptionally clear in bold yellow type.