An exquisite study of a rapidly expanding cemetery at the center of Mexico's drug wars.

With “El velador,” Mexican documentarian Natalia Almada (“The Other Side,” “El General”) has crafted an exquisite study of a rapidly expanding cemetery at the center of Mexico’s drug wars. Filled with the opulent mausoleums and ultra-modern, glass-fronted crypts of cartel members, the necropolis claims a rhythm all its own. Observational, virtually dialogue-free and minimalist to the point of stasis, Almada’s film observes violence from a tangential remove, concentrating on a night watchman’s tranquil rounds or the practiced movements of cemetery construction workers hard pressed to meet the demand for new tombs. Docu’s inchworm pace marks it as essentially fest fare.

Almada shows no dead bodies or burials. Though the cries and lamentations of the bereaved occasionally intrude on the sound of plastering and bricklaying, no mourners are visible. The only dead faces we see are photo enlargements of the deceased themselves, most of them barely into their 20s, printed on huge banners stretched across graves.

Almada homes in on visual details detached from narrative meaning, lending them an almost mystic quality: a plasterer’s shifting feet on the rungs of a shaky ladder, or a little girl playing hopscotch on cement-covered graves. In this context, the eager approach of the two cemetery Labradors, headed toward the watchman’s truck, almost registers as an event.

Snatches of escalating narcotics-related violence filter through car radios or the watchman’s tiny black-and-white TV (Almada used only source sound). At one point, when a syndicate boss is offed, the incredible event becomes the pic’s only dialogue-driven scene, as workers exclaim over the news, the exterior world briefly invading the film’s closed-off space.

At times this microcosmic approach seems perverse, almost provocative, as in the four-and-a-half-minute single take of the watchman watering the ground surrounding an elaborate tomb. Admittedly, moistened earth turns from beige to brown faster than paint dries, but the spectacle is not dissimilar. Still, the pic’s shocking last scene throws the pervasiveness of the drug war’s toll into startling relief.

El velador

Mexico

Production

An Altamura Films, Latino Public Broadcasting, POV, Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, Jan Virjman Fund production. Produced, directed by Natalia Almada.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Almada; editors, Almada, Julien Devaux; sound designer, Alejandro de Icaza; associate producers, Laurence Ansquer, Charlotte Uzu. Reviewed at Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 18, 2011. (In New Directors/New Films.) Running time: 72 MIN.

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