In “Dark Skull,” there’s no hint of any redeeming gray matter existing between the ears of the protagonist, who runs a short gamut between stupid, angry, violent, drunken, and unconscious. While hardly an appealing subject, he seems almost incidental to a movie that manages to be rather fascinating — even almost hypnotic — in spite of him. Director/co-scenarist Kiro Russo’s first feature is a sometimes cryptic, strikingly atmospheric drama set among the often literally subterranean lives of workers in the tin mines of Huanuni in Bolivia’s Oruro region. What might have easily become a familiar if worthy exercise in peasant miserabilism acquires an otherworldly quality via arresting imagery and enigmatic, fragmented storytelling.
What narrative specifics we can glean are that after the death of his parents, Elder Mamani (Julio Cesar Ticona) falls into the care of his remaining relatives, a duty they hardly relish. After all, this unseemly man-child is a stubborn ingrate who picks fights, gets high, and creates problems with dismaying regularity. When his godfather (Narcisco Choquecallata) does him the favor of securing him his late father’s job in the mines, Elder proves such an exasperating liability — stealing, sneaking off to imbibe, causing an accident — that fellow workers eventually petition for him to be removed.
Several plot points remain unclear, including some of the relationships and chronologies. Just when or where Elder managed to get himself thrown out of a glossy disco or mugged a woman for her purse is hard to tell, though those events stand out in a story otherwise largely relegated to dirt-poor rural environs. Likewise, it’s jarring when we see characters enjoy a brightly lit indoor pool, or in a daytime forest, because up to that point, “Dark Skull” has been almost entirely nocturnal (including the “night” of mine tunnels). Pablo Paniagua’s photography has the depth and delicacy of infinite shades of black — scenes underground, in particular, feel like they’re simultaneously embracing and trapping the viewer in folds of darkest velvet.
The summary effect is as haunting as it is ultimately mystifying. We may have no idea just where the characters are headed at the end, but then a simple happy ending would seem incongruous in this context. Russo’s nonprofessional actors are at home in a package at once realistically raw and stylized to an almost abstract degree, with spare but intriguing use of diverse music lending evocative, unpredictable counterpoint.