Closeups of hands at work—hands weaving, bundling logs, making bricks, harvesting: hard work—work done by children, some as young as four or five, sometimes helping their elders, sometimes laboring off on their own. Los herederos, Eugenio Polgovsky’s most recent Mexican documentary, which Polgovsky directed, digitally videographed and edited, all brilliantly, vindicates what I wrote about his earlier Tropic of Cancer (2004): “A stark examination of impoverished life in post-NAFTA Mexico turns into a powerful consideration of how hard some people must work just to survive. . . . [A] kid in his twenties[,] . . . Polgovsky, who was born in Mexico City, is the future of cinema.”
There is so much that is memorable in Los herederos, for example, the shot of a young boy making a wood carving, the knife that his small hands are using stained with his fresh blood as he presses on with his work, with great skill and daunting speed, for the boy isn’t whittling away his time in some suspended state of childhood idleness, he is producing merchandise for sale, and the more merchandise the more sales and the more meager profit for his family. Later, we see a shed full of the painted handiwork: it is gorgeous, and we remember the spilt blood that has been painted over, which the child kept diligently working through, paying it no mind. The title of Polgovsky’s film refers to inherited poverty in rural Mexico; all the children we watch are “the inheritors” of that, including the little girl, in a yellow dress, whose father, working in the fields, asks her mother across a distance to have their daughter bring him a bucket. To stress the work, rather than familial sentimentality, Polgovsky cuts away and attends to other laborers and their labor before returning to the little child with the blue plastic bucket she is bringing to her father. This is a film of devastating poetry.
Polgovsky has edited for his film the labor of four or five different families in different Northern Mexican villages, one of which is strikingly elevated. Despite his Russian name, he does not even once indulge in the Soviet rhetoric of work’s joyfulness and nobility because it is helping to build some sort of a future. What we see is work, work and more work that is done for survival’s sake and by the skin of the teeth. There is no contextualizing onscreen script, no talking heads, only the sparsest talking (at one point a child speaks aloud—to himself), no background music: just people who have committed no crime but who have been sentenced to life entrapment with hard labor. Polgovsky dignifies his subjects by the purity of his filmmaking methods. Two other films came to mind as I watched Los herederos: with its meshing of different rainshowers to create a single combinate event in which Amsterdam pedestrians participate, Joris Ivens and Mannus Frånken’s Dutch documentary Regen (Rain, 1929); from Bernanos, Robert Bresson’s fictional masterpiece about an impoverished, put-upon child, Mouchette (1966). All three films exemplify a kind of purity that helps distill an aspect of compelling human experience.
I say there’s no music in the film. With charm and wit as well as bracing irony, Polgovsky points this out in a passage of maybe one or two moments’ duration. Beginning with the spinning wheel that a woman is working, music seems to be generated by the machinery and the labor (here, I thought of René Clair’s inventiveness in the 1930s). Polgovsky cuts amongst faces, including the elderly, who silently seem to hear this imaginary music that we also hear. Poignant.
I cannot praise this movie enough—nor the resourceful children who share their unceasing labor and, here and there, glance with a quick half-smile into the video camera.
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