Long fascinated by indigenous Huichol culture, noted Mexican documentary/features helmer Nicolas Echevarria (“Cabeza de Vaca”) turns his artistically sensitive, respectful eye toward master muralist Santos de la Torre in the beautifully made if repetitive “Echo of the Mountain.” One of the Huichol’s leading artists, de la Torre creates stunning, complex traditional murals out of multicolored beads, their patterns tied to the peoples’ land and religion. Echevarria films him and his family both in the act of creation and during elaborate rituals which, though interesting, remain frustratingly unexplained. While little concrete is learned, this attractive window onto a threatened culture has been picking up awards and should see rotation on PBS-style broadcasts.
Outside Mexico, de la Torre’s work is perhaps best known thanks to a large mural in the Louvre-Palais Royal Metro stop in Paris, installed in 1997 with Presidents Chirac and Zedillo in attendance. Curiously enough, de la Torre was not invited, and the work wasn’t properly mounted. Echevarria implies that this slight is a strong indication of the continual denigration of indigenous Mexican cultures, in which a work of art is separated from its maker, becoming a prized object for European elites while the creator is ignored. This may certainly be the case, though it would be interesting to know exactly whose fault it was that de la Torre was not brought to Paris.
The humble, grandfatherly artist lives with his family in a remote area of the Sierra Madre, in Jalisco state: It took the director 10 hours to walk from the nearest transport stop to de la Torre’s home, which lacks basics like electricity and running water. Though he spends time in more urban areas like Zacatecas, the artist takes his inspiration and strength from traditional Huichol (also known as Wixarika) lands, and his life is very much one of symbiotic communion with the spirits there, helped by religious uses of peyote, “the third eye.”
“Echo of the Mountain” is divided between scenes of de la Torre painstakingly creating a new bead mural, and his family making its annual pilgrimage to peyote country, where they perform various ceremonies under the guidance of a Maraka’ame (shaman), Julio Garcia Cosio. Though fascinating for an ethnologist able to extrapolate meaning from the footage, these rituals cry out for some kind of explanation, which is never forthcoming. Echevarria’s refusal to exoticize the Huichol is commendable, yet he shies away from explanations unless volunteered by de la Torre and his clan. In the end, very little of a concrete nature can be gleaned about the man’s artistic formation or whether it varies from the work of his (presumed) mentors.
What is clearly conveyed is the troubling appropriation of traditional Huichol lands by miners and tomato farmers. Undoubtedly, Echevarria means his docu to be a record of a way of life under threat, and in that regard he’s put his fine eye for nature and color to excellent use. Clouds reflected in puddles, awe-inspiring landscapes, the indescribable warmth of wrinkled faces: All these are lovingly captured via a masterful use of framing and a sophisticated use of focal ranges.