A Wordless and Hypnotic Exploration of Indigenous Mexican Communities

Mar 4, 2023

A series of rituals play out across Helmut Dosantos’ nearly wordless documentary “Gods of Mexico.” Honing in on Indigenous communities and their labor in Mexico despite the shadow of the country’s creeping modernization, Dosantos’s breathtaking film recalls the work of Ron Fricke and Godfrey Reggio in its emphasis on the juxtaposition between static imagery and the syncopated rhythms of manual labor. Highly formal in its construction, “Gods of Mexico” eschews context for a fully immersive experience that is ultimately hypnotic, even if its overall message sometimes gets muddled in the process.  
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Dosantos splits his film into two sections: “White,” which follows workers in the South’s salt pans in crisp black-and-white cinematography and “Black,” which turns to the North’s underground mines and is presented in color. In between these bookends are several posed shots of sugar cane, tobacco, and henequen farmers, fisherman, and various other workers in traditional clothes, body paint, and masks. Thus, the film toggles between movement and stasis, seemingly juxtaposing cultural rituals and traditions of work in the process. 
In all of these sections, Dosantos foregrounds Enrico Ascoli’s sound design. Wind swirls around the film’s subjects and the sounds of scraping rakes and pick-axes provide a percussive and ambient score as everyone goes about their work. Further, the ancient rituals of the White section are placed against the Black section’s newer methods of mining, which highlights the use of dynamite and other more recent technology. But what these sections mean is ultimately left up to the viewer, as Dosantos merely places occupations and cultures beside each other. The director trusts that the contrast between old and new methods, black and white, will lead to some type of revelation about, perhaps, the encroachment of modernity and the pitfalls of homogeneity. But Dosantos backgrounds these thematic interests in a film more interested in presenting carefully cultivated aesthetic portraits of a civilization currently in flux. 
Like Reggio or Fricke’s work, “Gods of Mexico” sometimes feels like a screensaver that is intensely beautiful to look at, but opaque about the conclusions one should draw from it. This mainly derives from Dosantos’s decision to avoid contextual clarity. Who these people are and what these rituals mean isn’t as important to him as the collective aesthetic that they create. This approach creates a paradox of sorts. All of these varied cultures and people aren’t individualized or even named, but instead create an oddly unified message about cultural diversity. 
Further, the audience’s mileage may vary on the juxtaposition between the rhythmic labor and highly choreographed live photography. The middle section of “Gods Of Mexico” sometimes drags. But these lingering questions seem baked into the film’s premise and suggest a connection between the performative aspects of the rituals portrayed and the naturalism within the work that these communities do to survive. 
“Gods Of Mexico” is a film less interested in breaking down its conceptual framework — or even pushing forward a fully realized thesis — than it is about creating a structured cinematic experience. On that front, the film proves a complete success. It’s stunningly beautiful, with Dosantos’s cinematography zooming in and out of the salt pans to showcase the repetition of packaging salt or, in the latter section, following extractions from a mine. Each shot could work as a standalone photograph, with the landscapes almost swallowing the people working within them. That visual majesty makes for a film both highly structured but a bit thematically jumbled in the end, but “Gods Of Mexico” is also never anything less than visually and sonically engaging. [B+]

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