Screens at CIFF: 10/22 & 10/23
World premiere: 1 March, 2013, Guadalajara International Film Festival

The longer I think about Rodrigo Reyes's documentary Purgatorio: A Journey into the Heart of the Border, ostensibly about life along the border between Mexico and the United States, the more I am convinced that the best way to approach it is to take the title literally. This is a film about Purgatory, the state of waiting in a hell-like place for the promise of something good to come at an uncertain point in the future; the Mexico/U.S. border is merely the physical location that the movie uses to explore that concept.

And if that's a little to abstract and arty (if it is, by the way, stay the hell away from Purgatorio; it delights in the abstract and the arty), we could also trust Reyes himself, who claims in a very reflective and impressionistic opening monologue that he is less concerned with the border than The Border, the tendency of humans to look at the continuous flow of land and water in one steady object that is the surface of the planet and say, "Yeah, I think we should totally chop that into parcels". Maybe even something more metaphorical than that: The Border that says because I am one thing and you are a thing that we both agree is different, we shall also agree that we cannot have things in common. Reyes himself states, less in the spirit of confession than clarification, that the primary motivation for making this film about the boundary line between those two countries is because it is the border which he has spent the most time near, and thus is the one he knows best. The mind boggles to think of the movie that he'd have made if he was a native Canadian; at any rate, it would surely be a damn sight less depressing.

Solidifying the idea that this is about the concept of Borders rather than the specific border, Reyes does not ever once identify a speaker or a location as he interviews many people, more Mexican than American, but several of both nationalities, to find out what it is that they do in their lives on the border. Despite acerbically noting that the Mexican border towns aren't the black holes of violence they're made out to be in the media of both countries (the director claims that after three weeks of searching, he only found one dead body, an argument that would maybe be better served if he did not speak these lines over the dead body in question), it's clear from what we see onscreen that they're not tremendously happy places, either; there is much misery and no small amount of death (one of the most haunting moments in the film is an interview with a U.S. morgue doctor who describes in steady, clinical tones the kind of work he does identifying bodies found in the desert scrub, and then shares with us a body back full of sun-bleached dry bones).

Death is not the only thing to be found on the border - it doesn't suit Reyes rhetoric and perhaps not the reality to find hope and joy (the closest we come is an addict-turned-evangelist operating a home for the developmentally disabled who would otherwise be left to starve like animals on the streets, and even that has the distinct feel of being as much prison as anything), but there is a clear difference struck between "this is how we die miserably", and "this is how we struggle to live as best we can", and most of the film is more concerned with the latter than the former. There's quite a rainbow of humanity displayed throughout, always treated fairly by the director even when he immediately uses an ironic juxtaposition to knock the wind out of his subjects (something he does a little bit too readily), as when a tearful police funeral is followed immediately by a weeping woman bemoaning the cruelty of the police, brutal for the sake of it, or when two Americans are presented in immediate contrast, one who leaves care packages in backpacks along known immigration routes, the other collecting trash that he believes has been left as a breadcrumb trail for illegals to follow (the only open anti-immigration voice in the film, though Reyes does not mock him, and even concedes one of his points, that fixing Mexico matters more than escaping to the U.S.).

All those different people showing up means that the film sometimes wanders in its focus, often being less about "The Border" and more about the political problems facing a Mexico where corruption makes it virtually impossible to make anyone's life better, but the core of the film always remains that where people try to enforce separation between things rather than embrace unity, there is suffering. At times, this suffering is indulged in a bit too enthusiastically (a visit to a animal shelter where the terrified dogs are killed by the very empathetic and sad attendants rather than set loose to wear themselves to rags on the street is fair game; spending quite that much screentime watching a dog twitch after being euthanised is probably not), and the poetically obscure structure, married to Reyes's literary narration and some astoundingly beautiful shots of nature and city alike (the film leaves itself wide open to complaints that it visually glamorises poverty, though I won't be the one to make that complaint), mean that Purgatorio is not by any means a film for all tastes: it is awfully artistic and vague in places for a supposed documentary. But it's powerful regardless, putting its ideas across with force and passion, and depicting the world with tenderness and compassion and fury that we can't be better at humanity than we are. It's hard not to concur with that, and hard for me, for one, not to respond enthusiastically to the way that Reyes makes his feelings known.