VERA (Francisco Athié, 2003)

This is not the way it is supposed to be. I loved Mexican writer-director Francisco Athié’s Lolo (1993), liked well enough (although was a tad disappointed by) Optic Fiber (1998), and now can’t stand what has been widely touted as his masterpiece, Vera, a static, stultifying moony mystical adventure in the depths of a cave that I think is a gold mine. The protagonist is Juan, an elderly Catholic of Mayan descent, and hence an encapsulation of the human cost of Mexico’s Spanish colonization. Juan needs to get back in touch with his native spirit, and the collapse of the cave, and the transformative journey by water that this sets him on, gives him the opportunity to do just that in some otherworldly realm.
     Juan’s guide for this pop religious experience is Vera, a bluish tinged androgynous fairy played by Japanese Butoh dancer Urara Kusanagi, who, courtesy of computer-generated imagery, gets to dance with a nimble skeleton. (I prefer Fred and Ginger.) Her silence contributes to the dreamlike atmosphere. There are all sorts of visual oddities about. Juan, for instance, encounters a bowl of fruit; when he picks out the single orange, it crumbles into dust. (Crumbling things compose one of the film’s motifs.) A suspended pot of (I presume) boiling water is the centerpiece of an image of gold and black; the black sky behind Juan, who is tending to the pot, becomes a screen of fluctuating darkness and shimmering moonlight. This is gorgeous stuff. One of the reasons that none of it resonates is our constant awareness of the use of computers to generate these results. Everything seems so fake—and without any distancing aim in mind.
     Vera seems endless but takes up only 85 earthly minutes. It aims to haunt us, but doesn’t.

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