Don’t be fooled by his film’s slim running time: Everardo González, Mexican documentarian and laureate of various international festivals, can pack an awful lot of bleakness into 74 unhurried minutes. But thanks to a simple, chillingly inspired device, “Devil’s Freedom” — a mournful investigation into the phenomenon of Mexico’s “disappeared” from the perspectives of those bereaved by, and those responsible for, some truly barbaric acts of kidnapping, torture, and murder — is deeply compelling despite toiling in the grimmest recesses of human behavior. González’s subjects, whether perpetrators or victims, all wear masks: grotesque, flesh-colored balaclavas with crude cutouts for eyes, nose, and mouth. This single flourish, without compromising the authenticity of the first-person testimony that forms the bulk of the film, lends a surreal cast to the visuals, and introduces a host of disturbing and provocative associations.
The masks alternately suggest the bandages of burns victims or bring to mind films like “Eyes Without a Face,” “The Skin I Live In,” or even “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Leatherface, to be specific). Tableaux in which whole families are masked, or where a large woman is splayed on a bed, silently regarding the camera through roughly hemmed eye slits, evoke nothing so much as a feature-length Aphex Twin video. The point of the masks may have originated as a means to protect the wearers from being targeted further, but it’s clear the effect is a two-way mirror, both external and internal. The featureless heads melt together into a collective mass of misshapen humanity, but the people within seem liberated by the relative anonymity the disguises afford, and share shattering details with a candor that would surely be more difficult if the camera’s unblinking gaze fell on their bare faces.
Indeed, viewers can wonder just how effective the masks are in hiding identity: Though the shock of their horror-movie effect never quite wears off, we quickly come to differentiate one subject from another. There’s the young girl remembering the moment her mother was taken; the brokenhearted mother who recognized her son’s shoes in a shallow grave; the young enlistee who describes with unsentimental shame his part in colluding with the kidnappings; the man with the asymmetric face who went into the heart of a cartel in search of his missing brothers; the young guy, maybe handsome underneath all that fabric, describing his first kill at 14, and how he was awarded an Audi for his trouble.
The subjects never meet: This is not “The Look of Silence,” in which victim confronts perpetrator. Rather, those on camera are captured in long, somehow increasingly absorbing takes, low-lit in DP María Secco’s meticulous, textured frames. The audience is drawn to the task of assigning emotions to these faceless voodoo dolls, just as it is repulsed by the inhumanity of the stories and the viscerally abject sight of the speakers. It’s an intellectual endeavor, creating a horror that lives in your mind rather than your heart, and listening to such anguish from such a remove is a chilling experience. More than once, the subjects cry, but somehow we can observe with detached fascination how the nap of the fabric is soaked darker with a spreading stain while we remain dry-eyed.
It’s a very different approach to the subject than was taken in Tatiana Huezo’s superb, lyrical “Tempestad,” which played in Berlin last year, but it will undoubtedly prove just as hard a sell to audiences outside the festival circuit. Even within the circuit, this is a tough title to promote: It’s so profoundly despairing, so empty of all hope. There’s no resolution — no redemption or catharsis — just humans trapped in a dehumanizing cycle of corruption and violence that steals people from their loved ones, strips souls from their owners and, in González’s conception, even scrubs features from faces.