'Lapu': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Dreamily beautiful, if uninformative.

Juan Pablo Polanco and César Alejandro Jaimes' atmospheric quasi-doc conjures a Colombian ritual of reburial.

Viewers unfamiliar with the rituals of Colombia's indigenous Wayuu people will benefit from doing a little homework before watching Juan Pablo Polanco and César Alejandro Jaimes' Lapu, a dreamy quasi-doc that captures the atmosphere of a rite of passage rather than explaining what's going on. We're told nothing about the whys, whens or hows of the "second burial" seen here; we don't even know the extent to which it's being enacted for the audience's benefit. But those who know something about this ethnic group (or are willing to set their questions aside) will find an aesthetically assured debut that, appropriately enough given its directors' fine-art backgrounds, is as suited to art galleries as to cinemas.

Annoyingly, the film's festival and press materials also offer little help to a curious viewer. But a bit of research suggests that the Wayuu have a tradition of burying their loved ones once, waiting some time (sources differ on the interval), and then exhuming the remains, cleaning the bones and transporting them to what will be their permanent home.

Judging only from the film's depiction, it would seem that these days this ritual is done intuitively, when a loved one feels it is necessary. Here, a young woman named Doris has been dreaming of a dead relative. She speaks to an elder who helps make sense of those dreams, then announces, "I want to take out my cousin's remains."

In this case, at least, the reburial seems designed to help a troubled soul find rest. We learn that the cousin hanged herself, and in a couple of confusing scenes we see another woman who presumably represents that cousin's wandering spirit. The filmmakers place Doris in intimate tableaux with this actress — they quietly embrace under a canopy of giant cacti — and then we move to the details of the act.

Polanco and Jaimes have to this point lingered on long, static shots in which a many-layered sound design emphasizes the natural world's presence. But the pic's attention focuses when Doris' older relatives prepare her for what she's about to do: Eat only meat, not arepas or cheese, before handling the body; drink small amounts of "firewater" after the grave is opened, but not enough to get drunk; don't go to sleep right after the cleaning, no matter how out-of-it you may feel.

We travel to where the cousin is buried and watch workmen chip concrete out of her tiled grave site. A group of curious locals gathers around, some wincing or covering their noses. The most experienced bystanders offer stern encouragement to Doris as she tenderly handles the body: "There's no more life in her," one says, giving permission for the youth to wrest the skull free from a body that's not quite willing to release it. (With the camera placed below the level of the coffin, we see very little one could call gore.)

Even here, after the immediate event, the filmmakers eschew procedural details (what exactly became of those bones?) to focus on the sensory impact on Doris. She herself is cleaned, in a long semi-public bath that pairs shamanistic gestures with Christian invocations; bystanders wail in ritualized mourning; and the cousin's spirit returns to ask Doris, "How did you feel when you dug me up?"

That question, among all those the rest of us may want to ask, is the one Lapu works hardest to answer.

Production company: Los Ninos Films
Directors-editors: Juan Pablo Polanco, César Alejandro Jaimes
Screenwriters: Juan Pablo Polanco, César Alejandro Jaimes, María Canela Reyes
Producer: Julian Quintero
Director of photography: Angello Faccini
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Sales: Aleksandar Govedarica, Syndicado Films

In Wayuunaiki, Spanish

75 minutes