Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border

Purgatorio 2014
Justin Chin, RR Cinema
This haunting, beautifully photographed documentary presents the human side of its incendiary topic

Rodrigo Reyes' documentary explores the hellish conditions along the U.S./Mexico border

As its title would indicate, Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border is more a poetic meditation than a sociological examination of the myriad issues of illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States. Rodrigo Reyes’ documentary recently showcased at MOMA’s Documentary Fortnight is at times too elliptical for its own good, but it delivers a haunting portrait that stands in marked contrast to the incendiary arguments usually attendant to its subject matter.

Filmed in the U.S. and Mexico, the impressionistic film delivers a series of vignettes that lay bare the tremendous human toll exacted by Mexico’s frequently lawless conditions and the physicals risks undertaken by those seeking to cross the border illegally.

A gallery of compelling figures is presented, such as the Bible-quoting Good Samaritan who leaves rations of supplies and water for the immigrants to a Minuteman patroller who removes the litter that he believes are actually secret trail markers. Many such contradictions abound, including footage of a funeral service for three murdered Mexican policeman followed by an interview with a woman tearfully describing the subsequent brutal crackdown on local citizens.

The specter of death is ever present, as evidenced by an American coroner who describes his attempts to identify anonymous victims and the myriad ways in which they met their fates, at one point opening up a body bag to reveal nothing but bare bones. A disturbing sequence shot at a rundown animal shelter depicts the euthanasia of a stray dog in harrowing detail, although its relationship to the subject matter is tenuous at best.

The filmmaker’s sometimes overly florid narration is compensated for by the arresting images shot by cinematographer Justin Chin, who manages to find visual beauty in the stark landscapes littered with rusting automobiles and abandoned buildings as well as the poverty-stricken Mexican towns and villages.    

While its lack of contextual information proves frustrating at times—the interview subjects are never identified, for instance—the film succeeds in its goal of depicting the brutal harshness of its milieu with a powerful visual urgency. One can only hope that, as with Dante’s epic poem, the hellish conditions on display are merely temporary.


(Documentary Fortnight)

Production: Foprocine, La Mamaroma Producciones, RR Cinema

Director/producer: Rodrigo Reyes

Executive producer: Hugo Perez

Director of photography: Justin Chin

Editor: Manuel Tsingaris

Composer: Rodrigo Cordera

Not rated, 80 min.