Mercedes Moncada Rodriguez showed in her first feature docu, the poetic “Passion of Maria Elena,” that she is a filmmaker whose narrative style reflects the nonlinear logic and mystical proclivities of her subjects and setting. In “Maria Elena” that setting was Mexico; in “The Immortal,” it is the once war-ravaged Nicaragua (Moncada is Spanish-Nicaraguan) where the shooting may have stopped, but the wounds remain open. Pic is a good bet for international docu-friendly tube slots and possibly limited theatrical exposure.
The title refers to a truck which mutely, anonymously and very metaphorically rumbles through the jungle around present-day Nicaragua. But Moncada’s focus is the Rivera family — the mother, Julia, her daughters Maria and Reina, and her twin sons, Jose Antonio and Juan Antonio. In 1983, during the Contra war against the Sandinista regime (which cost 50,000 lives), Reina, Jose and another son, who later was killed, were conscripted into the Contra army; only Julia’s pleas kept the Contras from taking Juan, too, but after his brother died, Juan joined the Sandinistas. Thus Rivera was fighting Rivera.
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As pure war parable, “The Immortal” has it all — death, violence and a family indifferent to politics “plundered,” as one member puts it, by a war in which they had no stake. But Moncada isn’t satisfied with mere narrative or the kind of documentary-making that would be happy with the heartbreaking tale of the Riveras.
What she gives “The Immortal” — partly through the music of Camara Kambon and Diamanda Galas and the incredible sound design of Pelayo Gutierrez — is the aural atmosphere of a horror movie: Jungle screech becomes scream; scenes changes are punctuated by thunderous clangor, and a tremulous, rattling bass seems to underscore each chapter in the Rivera saga. As a result, an unearthly tension emanates from “The Immortal,” as the emotional mechanisms and contentious spirits of the Riveras’ village contend for dominance.
These include the church — Evangelical or Catholic, it doesn’t matter much to Moncada, who in one of her more obvious moments juxtaposes a Sunday collection with shots of vultures tearing a chunk of carrion to bits. But the film’s use of nature is not just about opportunistic religion; it is about God and man and his place on the earth. From cockfight to pig-slaughter to a bedewed spider web to a semi-comic battle between a rooster and a crab, the world around the Rivera village is full of allusions to human struggle. Moncada captures them, and, with the masterful assistance of cinematographer Javier Moron Tejero , she creates something much larger out of a small, Latin American story.