Some religious mumbo jumbo prattled over a white screen. A vaguely apocalyptic image, in smudgy black-and-white, of billowing smoke. A blindingly bright color shot of a swanky pool on a lavish estate probably owned by assholes. This is how Dominican director Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias opens the head-spinning Cocote. Don’t worry: Things won’t get much clearer. Instead of settling down, it doubles down. Each scene is told not just in different styles but formats, relentlessly toggling between film and video, color and black-and-white, Academy ratio and rectangular anamorphic, symmetrical master shots and herky-jerky handheld. And what the hell: A 360-degree pan is thrown in for fun, too.
But why? Partly to make us feel as out of sorts as its hero. Alberto (Vicente Santos) is a gardener to Santo Domingo’s idle rich who returns to his backwoods village after his father’s murder. There, the prodigal son is a) reluctantly forced to take part in a nine-day pagan wake, all while b) being screamed at by family members, who insist this city mouse go full Jacobean and avenge his dad’s death. It’s This Is Where I Leave You crossed with Hamlet but directed like a deep arthouse curio gone extra-rogue.
Getting one’s bearings isn’t impossible; it’s like divining the trick of a Sunday crossword. But Cocote isn’t purely academic. It’s alternately clinical and sensual. Often we’re submerged in lengthy, dizzying, ear-shattering bouts of that old-time religion. Alberto may be repulsed by his family and past, but de Los Santos Arias isn’t. He sees an impoverished community struggling to find solace in bygone traditions, or at least in each other. And he sees how that suffering can curdle into something dangerous.
Directed by Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias
Opens August 3, IFC Center
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 1, 2018