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Men at Work

Reaching for the human side of highway construction, doc doesn't dig deep enough

The Second Deck of the Periférico freeway wends its way through 17 kilometers of Mexico City sprawl, lifting untold tons of steel and concrete over an unknown number of graves. The men and women who slaved on this vast urban renewal project are the ostensible subject of In the Pit, a documentary haunted by the ghosts of those who died in its construction—and cursed by mixed-up priorities.

Filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo finds an endless number of ready-made spectacles for the delectation of his high-def video camera: ant-sized men toiling in gaping dirt holes, cataracts of traffic roaring through the night, immense platforms hoisted in place. Lovely to look at, In The Pit is energized by an impulse to abstraction; the strongest images aspire to something like the harrowing lyricism of Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog's operatic docu-poem on the burning oil fields of Kuwait. Rulfo's strong eye compensates for a weak ear, overly indulgent of a cutesy-clever score (by Leonardo Heiblum) arranged from ambient clanks and snippets of talk, a sort of perky techno-concréte ideally suited to a Periférico promotional video.

That's not the only miscalculation. Against the grain of his industrial enthrallments, Rulfo attempts the human-interest angle—to very little interest. Rulfo's keenest curiosity is for perfecting time-lapse tableaux. Of filthy, gentle Isabel; dreamy, poetic Natividad; affable, stoic Pedro; handsome, optimistic Vicencio; and shit-talking, wife-beating José we learn scarcely more than may be reduced to a pair of adjectives. In the Pit's empathy feels strictly skin-deep, its insight even shallower. Eavesdropping on his working-class heroes, he settles for bits of insult, macho bonhomie, vague musings, bromides. When a worker is killed by the roadside, the emphasis lands on a photogenic scatter of debris.

Isabel, in the glory of the Periférico
Kino International
Isabel, in the glory of the Periférico

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In the Pit
Directed by Juan Carlos Rulfo
Kino International, opens February 2, Cinema Village

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In the midst of this nifty picture-making, one searches in vain for the big picture. One resonant sequence stands out largely because it stands alone. "I say they should be working 24 hours," sneers a well-fed motorist in a DKNY T-shirt. "They areworking 24 hours," rebuts an off-screen voice. "Oh yeah? That's good. But it's still annoying."

What's irksome here isn't aesthetics per se but the pretense that they speak to human rather than plastic values. The movie climaxes in a wondrous helicopter shot traveling a great length of the Periférico. You'd marvel at the labor entailed were marvelous videography not so clearly the point.

 
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