Cocote is as clear as day and as bewildering as a nightmare, as chaotic as a whirlwind and as calm as the Caribbean Sea. It’s the last of these that intermittently serves as the backdrop for Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias’ feature debut (in theaters today), which employs a dizzying array of formal techniques for a story that, at heart, is as streamlined and familiar as they come—and also as violent, with brutality lurking around every one of its twisty-turny corners.
The film’s title is the Spanish term for the nape of the neck—a vulnerable area of import for Alberto (Vincente Santos), a gardener for a wealthy family whose estate is introduced via a series of snapshots of their enormous pool, where children frolic and (later on) couples screw. Alberto is summoned to his Dominican Republic home to attend the funeral of his father Eusebio, who (prior to the start of the film) has been beheaded by a local cop named Martinez (Pepe Sierra) over an outstanding debt. Alberto learns of his dad’s decapitated fate as a woman carves up a chicken, and the meaning is clear: Eusebio was slaughtered like a lowly animal. Confronted with this disrespectful horror, Alberto is faced with a dilemma: avenge his paterfamilias’ assassination, or cling to his evangelical faith and turn the other cheek while mourning his loss with family members.
Dressed in white-collared shirts and neat slacks, Alberto is a man of few words, and his reticence—both in manner and in deed—is contrasted by those closest to him. Though his sister Karina (Judith Rodriguez Perez) believes she’s not Eusebio’s biological daughter (she thinks he simply rescued her from the streets; Alberto has his doubts), she chides Alberto about his refusal to confront Martinez. Her vehemence is nothing compared to that of his other sister Patria (Yuberbi de la Rosa), who decries his inaction and the religious beliefs that begat it. Railing at him with rapid-fire fury, Patria slams him as a “coward” and his Christianity as a thing of the Devil, as well as something he only embraced out of guilt over his own (unspecified) wrongdoings. “Father is condemned until we defend his honor,” she screams at him, as de los Santos Arias’ camera moves from a position of intimate proximity to one of distant detachment.
That POV shift is part and parcel of a film that refuses to adhere to traditional structure and style. Cocote is a work of entrancing schizoid splendor, with de los Santos Arias and DP Roman Kasseroller using a variety of aesthetic modes—color and black-and-white; 1.85:1 widescreen and 1.37:1 aspect ratios; celluloid and digital—to create a crazed collage-like experience. The director’s imagery changes radically on a dime, and often for no discernible reason—there’s no apparent rhyme or reason for his flip-flopping between monochromatic and vibrant hues, or between expansive and boxy compositions. Consequently, it’s difficult, at least initially, to get one’s bearings as his tale unfolds, a situation compounded by the fact that narrative information is sometimes parceled out by off-screen speakers during otherwise nondescript scenes.
This isn’t to say that Cocote is difficult to comprehend. Alberto’s predicament is conveyed lucidly, if less than straightforwardly, and comes to the fore at regular intervals, such as during a startling confrontation between him, Karina and Martinez at a streetside bar. Astride a motorcycle in stopped traffic, Karina rails against Martinez (not for the first time, we’ve been told) for his crime, which he denies having committed, while telling Alberto to control his sibling—a command that was previously passed along to him, in a threatening manner, by a nocturnal henchman. Their meeting is infused with explosive energy that feels all the more dangerous for arriving amidst so much tranquil action, which de los Santos Arias likes to shoot in deliberate 360-degree circular pans that capture figures moving in and out of the frame.
Bolstered by a cacophonous soundscape of natural, orchestral and electronic noises, Cocote’s helter-skelter form creates an atmosphere of ever-present peril. It’s a disorientating vision of a world fractured by bloodshed and religion, with Alberto attending Christian and pagan ceremonies that are held at unidentified locales (houses, cliff caves) and involve communal singing and writhing about in ecstasy and agony. During these funereal gatherings for Eusebio, relatives and acquaintances thrash and scream with exorcism-grade fervor. Flailing prostration is also performed at the church Alberto attends, with a minister preaching against “witchcraft” with arm-waving intensity. Everywhere he goes, Alberto is greeted by passionate disorder.
The disconnect between the placid Alberto and his tumultuous surroundings is key to Cocote’s distraught, dreamy dynamism. Even as it plunges into hallucinatory terrain, however, the film imparts a potent verité impression of its environment, be it through ambling jaunts along animal-populated beaches or glimpses at TV news broadcasts, such as one about a rooster that, locals believe, says, “Christ is coming.” The instability of Alberto’s Dominican environs are always palpable, even as he himself remains something of a mysterious protagonist, thanks in large part to de los Santos Arias foregrounding him in the proceedings one second, and consigning him to the background (behind playing children and wayward farm animals) the next.
Cocote’s interplay of light and dark, serenity and turmoil, lends the drama a mythic weight, and speaks to its larger portrait of the country’s class schisms—here most brilliantly addressed in a sequence (shot through a doorway that leads to a bright street and glistening ocean) in which a cop uses a heinous personal anecdote to inform Alberto about his working-class powerlessness. The material’s opposing forces eventually seem like two halves of a circular whole, as if the inequalities, terrors, rituals and acts of retribution that comprise Alberto’s life are destined to repeat, ad infinitum. Definitive meaning remains, to the end, elusive. Still, de los Santos Arias’ film is an ethnographic revenge saga like few others, energized by a real feel for the Dominican Republic’s beauty and ugliness, and shrouded in disquieting moral and spiritual darkness.