Bright Lights Film Journal

Distribute This! Francisco Athié’s Vera (Mexico, 2003)

Bad day at Bedrock

“Distribute This!” is a space intended to showcase works that have not yet had the opportunity to find their audience. Not generally distributed at the time of writing, these are films that deserve to be seen and theaters full of viewers are waiting for them.

A black jewel of a film, Francisco Athié’s Vera was a project ten years in the making, and has won fans at festival screenings in Taos and Berlin for its unique textures and flow of images, unfolding a personal vision of the transformations that happen at the moment of death. Encountering symbols from multiple world cultures, an unremarkable everyman goes through a turbulent passage to a strikingly imagined afterlife, one enhanced with arresting computer generated effects and centered around a riveting performance from a world-renowned Japanese butoh dancer as a kind of guide to the other world.

Developed at the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, then shot in studios in Mexico and the spectacular caverns of Yucatan, with additional post-production work in France and Germany, Vera transcends expectations as a rounded and wholly realized work, one that sustains its intensity with unexpected authority and without faltering.

The protagonist (Marco Antonio Arzate) — a sixtyish paterfamilias of no outstanding qualities — seems no better or worse than any other man empowered by machismo. A misstep in a cave brings rocks tumbling down on him, starting a chain reaction of twisting and mutating transformations, where even a burly water buffalo crumbles into ashes before his eyes. His is the ultimate predicament, trapped between forms of existence, and recalling the striking opening pages of Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings where a pharaonic-era soul struggles for a way out.

At first, time hangs suspended in an elegiac calm, with scenes from the past glimpsed in brief elliptical bursts. Then the human world falls away, shifting like the unstable gravel that gives way beneath his feet, and his passage turns into a restless tumbling from one stage to another. All the elements seem at work as a torrent washes him down into the cave, where a kettle of water boils atop flames. When he draws his own blood, it serves to summon the Lady Balam, a Mayan figure who personifies the dark energy of the cosmos.

First a pod appears, a cellular organism clearly inspired by sci-fi, that proliferates and then splits apart to produce a combative creature, all giant head and spindly limbs (only this brief sequence, where the somewhat too rubberized creature dances, betrays the film’s origin as an experimental short). Soon this morphs into a naked and bald female, her complexion blue-green as if newly emerged from marine clay: this is the Lady Balam herself.

Wreathing together myths and images from both Mayan and Christian traditions, both Balam and Jesus, the film seems to accept all beliefs simultaneously, implying that any internal contradictions between pagan and Christian beliefs are really mind-game details. In keeping with Mayan practices of human sacrifice, the guide is detached from consoling European constructs like mercy and redemption, which seem neither relevant nor descriptive of nature’s dispassionate processes. Death brings death, and if old bones nourish and renew the soil, it’s little comfort to the deceased.

Gazing with the impassivity of a Mayan statue, here the angular and perilously lean butoh dancer, Urara Kusanagi, locks onto an animal intensity. Through sheer concentrated focus, her eyes gleaming with nature’s indifference and power, she wills the moon into descending from the sky. As the dying man’s guide through the protean forces of life and afterlife, she brings pitiless serenity: there’s all the time in the world.

Free of earth-kissing New Age romanticism about death, the film paints mortality as an inescapable and mysterious series of transformations, impressively visualized with densely controlled images, some echoing familiar works like Cocteau’s Orphée and Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. So, a flight of birds turns into a snowfall which then reverses into a gust of flower petals blown through the air. A flipped coin turns and tumbles in mid-air but then seems to become the shadow of a bird flying across the surface of the image, which then reverts to milky blue water.

As one flows into another with the rhythmic pulsing of a bloodstream, the images stream with their own sensual logic, with the camera of Ramón Suárez (who shot Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment and Raul Ruiz’s Darkness At Noon) sometimes peering from high overhead, sometimes circling around the widescreen. Though all but wordless, the film’s stylized sound design deploys electronica, drums, guitar, and reverberations of bells, and blends them in an innovative “three-dimensional” sound process (by the sound mixer of Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy).

After the man has passed on, finally transported down a kind of river Styx, the screen does not go dark but returns to the opening shot, the same hushed morning landscape of the world that we all share, at least temporarily. Vera doesn’t brood: there’s nothing to brood about, just as there’s nothing to accept or reject. The blue sky and green fields and wisps of smoke endure, only without him. The world goes on. We don’t.

With no stars, no plot hook, and no upbeat ending, this Yucatan death trip nevertheless provides an unforgettable experience, spiritual in the earthiest sense.

The obvious touchstone for such an intensely subjective vision is El Topo, the prototypical ’60s-era head film, but Vera does not detour into Jodorowsky’s farcical narcissism. If anything, the protean shapeshifting recalls Richard Linklater’s colorful Waking Life, only without all the jabbering , while the metaphysical expression of nature recalls the visionary Russians, perhaps more earthbound Tarkovsky than aestheticized Sokurov.

What does the title mean? According to writer-editor-director Athié, Vera “means trust and faith in Cyrillic (Russian), the truth in Italian, the side of the road in Spanish, and it is a very beautiful feminine name. Therefore, in a way, it points to the faith and trust you need to follow a path that is true to your own perception of the otherworldly”. (Athié’s previous film, the 1998 techno-thriller Fibra Optica, won two Ariel awards, Mexico’s Oscars, for Best Screenplay and Best Sound).

Is this a cult movie waiting for the midnight show to start? Maybe, but it’s more too. As a dance of death, this unique film aspires not to anesthetize but to sensitize us, through surprisingly eloquent visuals that integrate us into the awe-filled cosmic interconnectedness. Those seeking one supreme father figure, who holds all the answers, will find something different in this clear-eyed emanation from a culture that celebrates the Day of the Dead. So, Vera posts a warning: if you see a blue-skinned woman advancing in your direction, bearing a luscious orange in one hand and a lime dripping with dew in the other, prepare yourself: your number’s probably up.