Mexican docu specialist Jose Alvarez makes big strides forward from previous pics such as “Flowers in the Desert” with “Canicula,” delivering a gorgeous and captivating overview of the crafts and rituals of the Totonac people in Veracruz’s Zapotal Santa Cruz community. Among the year’s loveliest nonfiction entries, this tapestry of sights and sounds allows auds to take notice of a proud, long-ignored tribal group whose cultural roots remain firmly intact. Considerable fest crossover appeal should boost a solid 2012 worldwide profile.
Alvarez’s opening montage teases with glimpses of the community rising in the morning, establishing the film’s musical approach with a mesmerizing soundtrack composed by Martin Delgado (who also did the masterly sound design), Tomas Perez and Esteban Gonzalez. The brief snippets, however, hardly begin to indicate the artistry and physical demands of the work the Totonacs accomplish in front of Alvarez’s camera.
The filmmaker opts to concentrate on two areas of the community’s life: the elegant ceramics produced by a cadre of skilled women, led by Hermelinda Santes, and the religious rite of voladores, led by maestro Esteban Gonzalez. In the latter practice, men climb a pole topped by a cross-shaped pulley holding four long, thick ropes, to which they attach themselves by the feet and from which they hang upside down as they’re precipitously dropped. While Alvarez films the women’s craft in loving closeups that capture their detailed handiwork, his camera usually maintains a suitable distance to view the voladores ritual, which reaches its zenith in a breathtaking sequence.
There’s no effort to explain the activities, no historical background or informational footnoting. The process of filming is evident in the viewing, which is part of the docu’s deeper purpose: The handicraft and dedication exemplified in the ceramics and voladores are precisely what’s demanded of filmmaking itself, just as the beautiful results of the Totonacs’ work and the film’s own beauty are for their own sake.
Tech package is as classy as Mexican doc production gets.