'Cocote': Film Review

Too arty for its own good.
8/3/2018

A religious man returns to his rural village home after his father's murder in Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias' crime drama.

Style defiantly trumps content in Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias' debut narrative feature. A rare example of a film from the Dominican Republic receiving a U.S. theatrical release, Cocote tells a relatively simple story in willfully obscure, opaque fashion. While the pic features many intriguing elements and often proves visually stunning, it ultimately is a trial to endure.

The story revolves around Alberto (Vicente Santos), a taciturn gardener working for an upscale family in the country's capital city of Santo Domingo. He takes a leave of absence from his job to return home to his rural village in order to attend his father's funeral. Upon arrival, he learns that his father was in fact murdered by a local gangster (Pepe Sierra) because of an unpaid loan. His family, especially his grieving sisters (Judith Rodriguez Perez, Yuberbi de la Rosa), berate him incessantly to take violent revenge for the murder of their patriarch, which is an action the devoutly Christian Alberto is deeply reluctant to undertake.

The filmmaker's heavy-handedness is apparent in the opening frames and never lets up. The visuals are constantly shifting, keeping us as off-balance as the central character. The images shift willy-nilly from black and white to color; the types of film stock vary widely, with video thrown in for good measure; the aspect ratio lurches from widescreen to boxy; the camera is often focused for long periods on things apart from the main action; and the climax is photographed with a virtuosic 360-degree pan. Unfortunately, a little of this stylistic trickery goes a long way. The results smack less of cinematic innovation than ADD.

Not helping matters is that the director, whose previous efforts have been documentaries, concentrates for long stretches on emotionally harrowing religious ceremonies, many of them featuring intense chanting and singing. These sequences are presented with a near-ethnographic verisimilitude that, although initially arresting, tends to go on so long that tedium inevitably sets in.

There's no doubt that Cocote boasts an undeniable exoticism, one that led to its receiving an award at the Locarno Film Festival. And the visuals are often gorgeous, especially when showcasing the country's natural wonders (the film could easily boost local tourism, except for, well, the murder thing). But it's impossible to relate to the barely told story or the enigmatic central character, despite Santos' quietly compelling performance. The supporting characters, many of whom are shown loudly yelling at Alberto for minutes at a time, are also insufficiently fleshed out.

Playing like a Caribbean film noir as made by Jean-Luc Godard at his most inaccessible, Cocote demonstrates that pretentiousness crosses all borders.

Production companies: Guasabara Cine, Nabis Filmgroup, Pandora Filmproduction
Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Cast: Vincente Santos, Judith Rogriguez Perez, Yuberbi de la Rosa, Pepe Sierra, Isabel Spencer, Jose Miguel Fernandez
Director-screenwriter-editor: Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias
Producers: Fernando Santos Diaz, Lukas V. Rinner, Christoph Friedel
Director of photography: Roman Kasseroller

106 minutes