THE PASSION OF MARIA ELENA (Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez, 2003)

An achingly lovely documentary from Mexico, The Passion of Maria Elena (La Pasión de María Elena) was written and directed by sociologist Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez, who won for it the International Jury Award for best documentary at the 2003 São Paulo International Film Festival. The film also took the prize as best Mexican feature at the Guadalajara Film Festival. Rodríguez’s writing credit goes beyond, I presume, the questions we hear her off-screen voice ask individuals she interviews. Like a documentary by Werner Herzog, Rodríguez’s film perhaps bends the rules, benefitting from her scripted interventions. (It may be that certain flashbacks are reconstructions.) In any case, Rodríguez achieves a fascinating portrait of a woman, her parents and their community.

María Elena Durán Morales is a divorced young Rarámuri who, after the death of her 3-year-old son, Jorge, moves with son Luis from rural Rejogochi, in the middle of the Taramuhara Mountains, to a city in Chihuahua, Mexico. She moves to find work; most of all, she moves because of terrible sadness. Her home village is now haunted by memories of her dead child.

Jorge was killed by a hit-and-run driver in a pickup truck. María Elena and her sister Crucita were walking with him; when Crucita let go of Jorge’s hand for a second, the vehicle struck, crushing his foot. When the driver, a white—that is to say, Spanish Mexican—girl named Marisela, the daughter of a local landowner, sped away, her vehicle crushed the boy’s head. Jorge’s mother is not alone in her grief over the loss. María Elena’s mother’s stoicism barely conceals tremendous grief; her father cannot even manage stoicism, which may be why his wife must. A neighbor, not a Rarámuri Indian, also keenly feels the loss of the happy little boy he was so used to seeing playing about.

It is this neighbor who convinced María Elena and her father, against their doubts, to have a Rarámuri trial, the purpose of which isn’t punishment but admission of responsibility, forgiveness, reconciliation—in sum, communal harmony. At this trial, Marisela tearfully confessed and María Elena forgave her in her heart, but when they hugged María Elena could tell that Marisela was mocking her. At her official mestizo trial, Marisela denied she had anything to do with Jorge’s death; “white justice” acquitted her. Marisela’s ridiculous claim of innocence was supported by the police diagram of the accident location, which had been doctored to make it look as though the driver of the truck could not have been responsible. We hear about all this, but we actually see María Elena, after her own lawyer has given her the runaround and washed his hands of her, confer with a Human Rights Commission attorney, who tells her, and probably honestly believes, that the matter can be set right by the correction of the corrupted diagram. However, the matter is never resolved; Mexico’s system of justice simply isn’t attuned to the rights and grievances of poor, dark-skinned indigents.

The contrast between native and official justice is interesting. However, one errs, I believe, if one interprets María Elena’s pasión as being a grieving mother’s pursuit of justice. Rather, María Elena’s pasión is her spiritual dimension and spiritual resourcefulness. At the beginning of the film, we hear the voice of the sympathetic neighbor: “Around here, people believe if a child dies that child will be born again in the body of another child, especially if you dream about him often.” Later, we watch and listen as María Elena tells of her son’s visitations after his death. In one, he tells her, “Mama, don’t cry for me anymore. I’ll be with you wherever you are.” In all these dreams she sees him flying. After she gives birth to a new son, whom she finds to be Jorge all over again, María Elena quips that it has been easier to bring Jorge back from the dead than to secure justice from white people. It is this element of spirituality that unifies the film and best explains its title.

Indeed, it is this element that accounts for many of the film’s most gorgeous shots. The film is divided into separately titled segments or chapters, an early one of which is called “Soul.” Its opening shot is extraordinary: at night, out of the dark, illumined by the torch one of them carries, a flock of children run toward the camera. As María Elena recounts one of her dreams of her dead son, we see a solitary figure outside at night, in long shot, walking away from the camera into the darkness. Elsewhere in the film, there are near-closeups of the silver moon in the black sky. In perhaps the film’s most exquisite shot, white clouds pass over the mountains, their haunting movement the result of subtle time-lapse photography that also shows the mountains beginning in sunlight and darkening to dusk. The clouds thus poetically connect to María Elena’s dreams of Jorge flying, while the mountains’ going from light to dark intimates the mystery of Jorge’s passing and the eventual mystery of his return. This is a film shot through with intimations of spirit—but not in the city, where the flat appearance and noisiness from traffic suggest the opposite: spiritual deprivation.

Rodríguez thus succeeds, at least to some extent, to find visual correlatives to the spiritually inclined minds of the Rarámuri—a way of seeing things, of apprehending the world in its connection to the solemn and magical eternal, that eludes our supposedly more advanced grasp of reality. Or is so-called civilization a retreat from the primitive mind that persists in close connection with Nature? Consider this: María Elena gets her Jorge back. Marisela’s lies enable her to escape the legal consequences of her reckless disregard for the life of a child. But, to be truly free, wouldn’t she have had to undo the hit-and-run, from which even her limited conscience will never quite be able to shake loose? Yet, in effect, this is what the Indian woman, María Elena, has achieved. The return of her son to her arms in a new life undoes, for her, the tragedy of her loss.

Rodríguez’s Pasión de María Elena occupies a space betwixt objective and subjective cinema, between harsh reality and dreams, between bondage and freedom, between matter and spirit—if you will, between documentary reportage and observation, on the one hand, and richly poetic fiction, on the other. It is about more than a mother’s passion for justice. It is about a mother’s passion to renew her life-giving, life-affirming role.




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