The last ten minutes of Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar observe some distant hills, a plain, and an approaching storm. The black-and-white photography emphasizes the gray weight of the clouds and the far-off lashes of rain. On occasion, one static shot cuts to another, the camera now some undetermined distance from the previous vantage point, but the effect overall is of stillness, of isolate observation, of surrendering yourself to land and sky. Lightning flashes, an illuminated fissure. A half heartbeat later, the thunder cracks. A poet reads to us, slowly, in Spanish with subtitles, but it’s easy to lose the drift of what she’s saying as the squall builds power. A study of the Sonoran hinterlands on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, El Mar La Mar is the rare film to subordinate its form to the landscape it’s set in. To watch it attentively is to surrender, for ninety minutes, to the slow-motion pace of Sonoran life.
Nothing here is hurried, but it does fascinate. Outside of that ending — and some passages of blackout darkness that accompany the testimony of people who live in or have passed through the region — El Mar La Mar unfolds in rich color. After an extended, disorienting survey of the thrush of weeds and the geometry of fence posts, the filmmakers immerse us in what at first seems a more conventional approach to landscape beauty: Here’s the humped back of a purple ridge and a smolder of pink lining it. Must be sunset, I surmised — or dawn. But a couple of slow cuts later reveals the truth. We’re watching lava.
Bonnetta and Sniadecki’s Sonora continually reveals itself as something more wild, dangerous, and beautiful than you might have expected. The few voices in the film describe the mystery and terror of desert life: One guy insists he saw a monster one night. Other people describe discovering bodies in their travels — the bodies of people. We hear from Mexicans who have picked their way across the wastes, avoiding the border patrol, and we watch activists fill and label gallon bottles “agua pura” to help these desperate folks survive. A sequence of the scrub at night, lit only by flashlights, stirs helpless horror, a sense of the pitiless vastness of creation.
Mostly, though, the film is hushed, save for wind and weeds. The filmmakers scout out the surprisingly varied flora, revealing a land that’s somehow empty and teeming at once. They study ants and bees, a deer on the road and footprints in the dust, the water bottles and burner phones dropped by transients. One shot of a furrow, seen from above, is a hypnotic puzzle: Is the camera five feet above some dirt or a hundred feet above a valley? “It all looks the same, pretty much, until you’ve been here a little while,” one of the unnamed, unseen narrators notes. The film’s accomplishment is that it invites us into the perspective of those who have been there.
El Mar La Mar
Directed by Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki
Opens February 23, MOMA