Cocote, the debut fiction film from Dominican writer-director Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, starts fragmented, with a staccato of disparate images. A loud, sermon on the mount-type voice over about Greek philosopher Diogenes is cut short by black and white footage of a plume of smoke suffocating the frame. Though de Los Santos Arias subsequently introduces a chaptered title card, promising a set structure to follow, Cocote quickly announces itself as a film uninterested in traditional narrative and montage.
Alberto, an evangelical Christian and groundskeeper, returns to his rural hometown following the brutal murder of his father at the hands of a policeman. During his stay, he’s hectored by his kith and kin — primarily because his beliefs are incongruous with theirs — as well as the corrupt policeman who took his father’s life. The film follows the grieving and angsty Alberto as he navigates both parties during the village’s ritualistic nine days of prayer.
While the plot becomes clear, it’s never gripping or accessible. In fact, most of the beats are picked up over primarily off-screen, albeit diegetic, conversations. In a way, it’s like many early Robert Altman films, such as M*A*S*H or California Split, if his compositions were less subtle. Instead of scanning zooms, de Los Santos Arias’ go-to move is a slow, 360-degree swivel shot a la Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre.
“It’s a clear fuck you to the language of the colonizer! So this is why I’m going to create images in terms of camera movement, or in the way I’m going to go through a scene to another scene,” de Los Santos Arias told Film Comment. “The 360 is not only because it’s beautiful, it’s very cinematic, but it’s also very interesting because you are in a constant problem — it’s making visible and invisible all the elements of that scene, in and out of frame.”
This technique is recurring, often turning away from ostensibly important dialogue — one of the many indications that de Los Santos Arias cares little about his film’s plot, which has the makings of an exciting revenge tale. Instead, Cocote is an experiential film, eschewing genre for ethnography and becoming an artifact of the religious rituals native to Caribbean culture.
These rituals are presented through immersive and claustrophobic handheld shots, and while there’s something to be said about the visceral experience, it begins to feel separate from Alberto’s experience. Admittedly, this is the director’s purpose, “It’s sacrilege in narrative films to lose the point of view of your main character, so what’s interesting for me is the idea of losing that point of view.” The intention is metaphorical, simulating Alberto’s consciousness. Him and his religious beliefs are sidelined upon his return, and thus the film follows suit, pushing the story towards the film’s fringes.
Cocote shares a slight resemblance to Sebastian Lelio’s most recent film Disobedience, which also revolves around a character returning home following their father’s passing, and subsequently clashing with the established religious values of their past. But whereas that film saw its Chilean director trying his hand at a culture foreign to him (Orthodox Judaism in Northern England), Cocote is de Los Santos Arias diving deeper into the underrepresented population of his own country.
“I started investigating the idea of being on the periphery, and this relationship between the visible and the invisible and what happens when this invisibility becomes visible. I was thinking about this world of the periphery, these people that come and go,” he continued in the Film Comment interview. This interest certainly shows through; however, it becomes an alienating force. This year’s Araby is another film preoccupied with a peripheral population, but instead of feeling like a detour — as it does in Cocote — the power of representing the peripheries becomes the actual focus of the film. Though I understand de Los Santos Arias’ intention, what this film gains in representation is overshadowed by what it loses by neglecting to indulge more in Alberto’s psyche and moral crisis.
Despite not having much to glom onto, narratively, Cocote is a blunt film, and your mileage may vary based on how receptive you are to de Los Santos Arias’ formalistic provocations, which I found inescapably hawkish. For instance, the title, which the director said has a specific meaning in the Dominican Republic referring to violence against an animal, is showcased when the camera pauses on the shot of a raw chicken newly decapitated. The shot suggests a violent hegemony between city officials and the townsfolk, like Alberto’s father, who’re liable to be murdered by the former without consequence, but the harsh, forceful presentation elicited a balk from this viewer.
There are plenty of beautiful compositions to be found, including a long take that recalls The Searchers, but more often than not, these gorgeous shots are cosmetically pleasurable and not contextualized by the film around them. De Los Santos Arias is clearly more preoccupied with the religious tension between Alberto and the town natives, and even more so with deconstructing the traditional grammar of fictional film storytelling.
The director’s attempt to dismantle this vernacular has the expected ambition of a debut filmmaker; he’s experimenting with the entire tool box. In just the opening minutes, de Los Santos Arias runs the gamut from both black and white and color photography, multiple aspect ratios and a chaptered title card — and while his sights are pointed in the right direction, he’s still struggling to grasp the medium. Instead of building a new form, de Los Santos Arias ends up with something formless — a film that toggles between narrative and experiential ethnography but can never find a way for them to cohabitate.
Shawn Glinis (@MrGlinis) is a freelance film critic. He’s a lifelong Midwesterner with a BA in film studies and an MA in media studies.