A searing, horrifying, at times starkly beautiful documentary ode to the netherworlds surrounding the U.S.-Mexico barrier, Rodrigo Reyes’ “Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border” often feels cruelly titled. While Dante’s pilgrims endured the hardships of purgatory secure in the knowledge they’d eventually make it to paradise, Reyes’ subjects know no such certainty. Brilliantly photographed yet frequently difficult to look at, this is a strikingly assured work deserving of future festival play, offering an impressionistic ground-level view of the simmering humanitarian crisis occurring just outside, and often within, American borders.
Most of the film appears to have been shot on either side of the frontera in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, though locations (as well as interview subjects) are never identified. This is perhaps intentional, as the film’s most powerful subtext concerns the idea that the border, and the massive wall erected to enforce it, has no real anthropological or topographical reason to be there. The boundary may be arbitrary and contingent, but the conflicts it creates — with desperate poverty and violence on one side, protectionism and paranoia on the other — are all too tangible.
Despite grazing a number of hot-button issues, the film eschews international politics in favor of human-scale dramas. The elegiac language Reyes employs in his voiceovers can verge on verbosity, but its loftiness is hardly inappropriate when laid over the scorching images captured in crisp, vivid tones by cinematographer Justin Chin. Some of the environments on the Mexican side are downright apocalyptic, featuring burned-out houses and cars that appear to have been abandoned for years. And up north, a shellshocked U.S. coroner, tasked with identifying the remains of the hundreds of immigrants who perish each year on the journey across, opens one John Doe’s bodybag to reveal nothing but sun-bleached human bones.
While the narration is sporadic and the background info limited, the film makes its most persuasive cases through simple contrasts. A tearful funeral for three murdered Mexican servicemen is followed by a local woman describing the indiscriminate brutality of the resulting police crackdown. Footage from a candlelight prayer service for drug war victims is overlaid with giggling schoolchildren listing the makes and models of their favorite assault weapons. And in a particularly Dantescan juxtaposition, an Anglo “border angel” invokes Scripture as he leaves bottles of water near the American side of the wall for parched pilgrims to find, minutes before his Minuteman counterpart cites the fall of the Roman Empire as he patrols a similar area, picking up random litter he believes border jumpers have left behind as secret directional markings.
At times, the dire urgency of the situations at hand can rub up awkwardly against the dreamlike languidness of the film’s pacing. There are also moments when Reyes overplays his hand with the unrelenting bleakness of his imagery — closeup footage of the canine euthanasia process in a squalid borderland animal shelter, for example, provokes plenty of pathos without proving much of a point. But these missteps are thankfully few.
Early in the film, Reyes happens upon two Mexican migrants staring up at the 20-foot steel fence separating two identical-looking stretches of desert. One is in his 40s, the other in his 20s, though both look much older, and both speak with the kind of terse, weary stoicism that would be right at home in a Beckett play. “I come from a beautiful country,” the younger one notes, before complaining that in the media, “they only show the landscapes, never the people.” By the time he returns to the pair near the film’s conclusion, Reyes has certainly done his part to right that balance, and his camera follows the younger man with quiet admiration as he drops his bag, carefully scales the fence, and swings across to the other side.