This week’s releases are grounded in rarities, with a story set inside the Jehovah Witness community in the UK sitting alongside an even scarcer look at life (of sorts) in the Dominican Republic. In fact, Cocote extends the connection between the two films thanks to its religious and spiritual themes.
Writer-director Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias’ first fictional film is an experimental piece that retains many of the documentarian traits featured in his two previous observational efforts. At times it feels more akin to an art installation than a hands on interpretation of a troubled soul such is de los Santos Arias’ loose fitting approach.
Although largely a non-narrative film, it uses the story of Alberto (Vicente Santos) as a route into the rural areas of the country. It loosely throws up discussions about the class divide and corruption in power structures, while entrenching the viewer into the traditional and non-traditional religious beliefs that appear to be the lifeblood for so many living there.
Alberto is an Evangelical Christian who loyally works as a gardener for a wealthy family in Santo Domingo. News reaches him his father has been killed by a notoriously violent local police officer and he returns home to see his family in anticipation of the burial. However, his father has already been put into the ground and the family are preparing for a period of mourning rituals that combine old African and Taino rites, sitting at odds with Alberto’s more subdued idea of how to remember a loved one.
His family is mostly matriarchs and have no interest in Alberto’s holier-than-thou approach to letting the killer get away with his crime. The women demand he seeks justice on behalf of the family in order to let his father’s spirit rest, a sentiment that goes against every sinew in his giant frame of a body.
This slim plot line is really a way for de los Santos Arias to show life and culture in the Dominican without relying on the expected depictions of these communities. Alberto’s tortured soul is perhaps a representation of the country’s troubled colonial history and the lop-sided rule of power between men, women and the law that governs them all.
Using a collage of film stock, frame sizes, colour, and slow 360° pans and long-takes, de los Santos Arias ingrains us into this worldview. A long time is spent in the ritual ceremonies, watching on as people viscerally expel their emotions, with these scenes being entrancing in small doses but appearing on too many occasions for them to hold their spell.
The cast are a mixture of experienced professionals and non-actors which feels like you are watching a docu-drama such is its authenticity and insider perspective. We are also shown how far – and absurd – spiritual beliefs are absorbed within Dominican culture, with cutaways to local TV news clips of people mourning the passing of a pub crawling goat, and a rooster who has been ordained as a messenger from God.
Cocote’s strength is also partly its weakness in that by employing such a varied storytelling tool set it suffers from a lack of focus. That said, it is a singular vision boldly put to screen on a micro-budget and de los Santos Arias’ willingness to experiment with narrative and structure will hopefully serve as inspiration to many other young filmmakers. With this being his third film in five years, we can only hope there is much more of de los Santos Arias to come.