‘Purgatorio’ Is Specific and Sublime

Let me be clear about one thing: America needs to secure our borders and reform our immigration laws, but immigration reform must — and I mean, must — be grounded in real border security.

John Boehner, 20 June 2013

I was so excited for her to call me her baby, she would always call me her baby. The whole time I was there I held her hand. We had chairs, one chair on her side one on mine and we talked about everything families do over the dinner table.

Carlos Padilla, on seeing his mother through a US-Mexican border fence, 12 June 2013

“Close your eyes. Try to imagine what the world was like, many, many years ago. Try to imagine when borders did not exist.” Yes, try. The opening moments of Purgatorio help you, too, as director Rodrigo Reyes’ narration sounds over a black screen, as if your eyes are closed. From here, the frames cut to a series of people-less shots, turquoise colored waves, a grazing donkey, fleecy white clouds, bright red and yellow flowers. The world then must have been full of raw mystery, the voiceover continues, unmarked, unlimited, open to imagination.

“And then we arrived,” an idea accompanied by images that appear innocent, a child’s feet swinging over his schoolroom’s linoleum tiles. The boy and his classmates are working on projects, cutting and measuring colored paper, drawing and erasing. The bell rings, and as the kids trot from the front door onto a playground where they begin to play soccer. “We lost our very first language that connected us all,” Reyes goes on over wide shots of seemingly endless desert. “We tore it apart into a thousand piece. And in the madness that followed, we discovered violence, hate, and finally, separation.”

“We” might think back just a moment now, and see that the children in these first two minutes of film are at once innocent and in training, their efforts to create also efforts to shape, to order their world as they are instructed, to pay a game where they take sides and where their achievements might be calculated, rewarded or not. And so “we” see, the world we have transformed, the world we now limit and fear, by costs and benefits and by borders.

Premiering at Los Angeles Film Festival this week, Purgatorio focuses on the borders between the US and Mexico, the many ways to cross and block the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. “I was born in Mexico City and have lived in both the US and Mexico,” Reyes adds, his own story of borders framing many others to come. The film, both specific and sublime, offers interviews with would-be border crossers, with border patrollers, with mourners who have lost relatives and with a coroner who tries to identify corpses and also, causes of death. Most often, he says, people die of dehydration and heat exhaustion, but other causes come up occasionally, from disease to trauma to suicide. Still, he notes, people try to cross the border, in search of work, in search of better lives. “Everybody thinks they’re invincible, it’s human nature” he sighs, “Otherwise, we’d probably never leave our homes.”

This idea of home is complicated in Purgatorio, not only as a place or a community, but also as aspiration, an idea that is, in turn, delimited by the idea of borders. A home might be open to growth and change, and a home might also be defined by its walls, the determination to keep others out. Those who leave one home to find another, who hope to expand their futures or horizons. The film helps you to imagine such expansion even as it shows boundaries, their artifice, their construction and their designations of populations as bodies unto themselves, isolated and afraid.

One activist reframes the story, saying that if an American lost his job and moved to another place to support his family, he might be lauded as courageous and selfless, rather than being condemned and feared. He leads the camera crew along his own route in eth desert, as he leaves backpacks with food and water hanging from tree branches in the desert, in hopes that someone might survive because he or she finds them. The camera lingers on a couple of these bags as he leaves the frame, leaving you to wonder who might find these treasures, or who might miss them.

As much as the film makes visible such unfinished and unknowable stories, it also shows, again and again, consequences of borders. The story of the backpacks, unfinished, is followed by another, narrated by another citizen patroller as he picks up garbage, specifically, other versions of the plastic bags and bottles and shoes the first guy has left to be found. Observing the tricks that some border crossers use to disguise their footprints, he insists, “We gotta get ’em out of here,” and then, anticipating the complaint, posing his own question: What’s cruel about that?” Some kid without a visa might find “work in an underground bar,” he specifies, and so takes “a job from an American because he’ll work maybe a buck or two cheaper?”

The fear is familiar but also in the wide-ranging context of Purgatorio, small. The many, continual cuts between scenes simultaneously underline their connections and also their disjunctions. Protestors costumed as angels caution highway drivers that “Christ is coming,” a Ferris wheel lights up the night sky, stray dogs are collected, caged, and euthanized (one scraggly pup’s death scene is as heartbreaking as any you might imagine). Mexican kids on the street at night play at what it would be like to wield guns, guns they can name by type and size. A border patrol agent describes finding “an illegal” he and his team found shot, passed out and weak from loss of blood. A motel, “El Dorado”, is an emblem of loss, still frames of its abandoned swimming pool and cracked and faded poolside chairs leading to long shots of the desert, desiccated and empty, and then again to corpses, bagged and tagged, collected on shelves. Opposed to these are signs of life, sort of, a dusty street show reenactment of Old West heroes shooting vintage-looking pistols at Mexicans, actors who drop to the ground, applauded by tourists.

The sheer number of impressions here may seem daunting, but they come together as poetic meditation, forming their own order, not a chronology but a movement in and out of time. Late in the film, you see a newspaper factory, the machines stopped with papers still inside. A journalist describes his daily dilemma, how to sort images, to tell a story but also show respect for families who have suffered losses. And so, he says, “You find a different angle.” Just so, Purgatorio comes at the tragedies of borders again and again, finding different angles, reimagining histories and lives. In doing so, it asks you to open your eyes.

RATING 9 / 10