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Film review: Cocote

30 July 2018

Stephen Brown views a film with a Christian moral dilemma at its heart

Alberto (Vicente Santos) returns home to attend his father’s funeral, in Cocote

Alberto (Vicente Santos) returns home to attend his father’s funeral, in Cocote

EMILY DICKINSON’s poem bids us tell all the truth but tell it slant: words that Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, the director of Cocote (no BBFC certification) seems to have taken to heart. He gives us a veritable collage of prolonged shots, unrelated images, monochrome and colour scenes, differing aspect ratios and sounds.

The first words that we hear come from someone we can’t see. “I’m looking for a man who loves Jesus Christ.” Is the rest of the film a search for such a character? And do we, in the person of Alberto (Vicente Santos), find one? That’s for me to know and you to discover.

Alberto comes from a village in the Dominican Republic. His Christian background contains a mixture of Catholic ritual with what’s known as Los Mysterios fervour, originating in West Africa. When he is left to his own devices, his is a quiet spirituality, one tempered perhaps by the subservient part that he plays as gardener for a rich family in the capital. He gets leave of absence after his father’s sudden death. “I need you back on Monday”, the mistress of the house says, for “Mr’s celebration”. With that proviso, he returns to the humbler atmosphere of his village.

This is where his religious outlook is severely tested; for Alberto discovers that his father literally got it in the neck (cocote is the Dominican word for it), having been decapitated by Martinez, a loan shark, for failing to repay a debt. His sisters demand that Alberto, now titular head of the family, avenge this dishonour by killing the murderer. This is easier said than done: not just because Martinez is in cahoots with the police, but also on account of Alberto’s faith. Despite raucous tongue-lashings from his family, he quietly asserts that this is not the Christian way.

The relatives insist that their own brand of supposedly the same faith takes a contrary view of how to respond to this outrage during rezos, the traditional nine days of mourning. Each side of the argument perceives that the devil has perverted the other’s outlook. Occasionally, the camera switches to a God’s-eye view of proceedings, the main characters’ counter-arguments becoming less audible by virtue of distance.

Extended discussions take place over how or whether God can be the good Father of Albert’s theology, one who hears our cries for help. Characters repeatedly recite the Lord’s Prayer at stages of the narrative in an effort to discern how best God’s will will be done. Alberto tries formal, legal means of effecting justice, but corruption is endemic to the system. A police officer whom he knows suggests that the only means of resolution is to enlist someone higher up the food chain to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion.

In some ways, the film has the plot of a conventional thriller, but for its lengthy digressions into church services at times more akin to voodoo than Christian liturgy. Cocote is a cinematic tour de force. That isn’t necessarily a compliment; more an acknowledgement that the director pulls off plenty of filmic techniques, even if in the end one feels he’s over-egged the pudding.

Showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1, until 2 August. Phone 020 7930 3647. www.ica.art

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