This penetrating, lyrical documentary by Nicolás Echevarría (“Cabeza de Vaca”) follows the great Huichol artist Santos de la Torre while he participates in spiritual rituals in preparation for a new piece. Despite the fact that the indigenous Huichol people, with their deep roots in tradition, are being increasingly marginalized by contemporary farming and mining industries, one of de la Torre’s murals was selected by the President of Mexico to be displayed in Paris as a representation of Mexican art and culture. Visitors of the Louvre who have entered the Palais Royal station have likely seen his massive, paneled mural made with over two million colored beads. De la Torre was not invited to the unveiling. “And it wasn’t set up correctly, by the way,” he recalls.
Echevarría becomes part filmmaker part anthropologist with this beautiful portrait piece that’s as ethnographic as it is an artistic achievement in its own right. His camera follows de la Torre on a pilgrimage to Wirikuta where he, along with his family and a shaman, speak with the gods and spiritually prepare for his new mural, which is to convey the mythological history and practices of his people.
The religion of the Huichol is a clash of natural and otherworldly forces. Children are taught early in life the protective power of visits to sacred places and the spiritual awakening that comes from digesting peyote. In the mountains of the Sierra Madre, chants and prayers lead to the sacrificing of an animal (and a few uncomfortable groans in the audience). All of this is captured in the final piece which de la Torre spends month assembling. Square wooden blocks (approximately one foot by one foot) are coated with an adhesive wax and tiny, colored beads are placed on top using a toothpick. Secondary colors allow for shadow and depth effects, and preliminary sketches guide his work. The artist sees this work as an act of necessary documentation for his community’s benefit, remarking, “[only] fools always think about making great things.”
Echevarría, with a career spanning forty years, understands as a filmmaker how to blend his creation with the subject’s. The hills, deserts, and sunsets of the region are captured with stunning compositions that are overlaid with de la Torre’s words as he describes his philosophical and spiritual understanding of the universe and his place in it. These lyrical sequences are beautifully poetic – a blend of personal emotion and cultural ethnography that will allow “Echo of the Mountain” to be a very well received documentary.
If there’s a flaw to Echevarría’s approach here, it’s perhaps that he doesn’t often contextualize the Huichol practices within a modern society. There’s no general understanding of how often these pilgrimages and rituals take place and whether they are, outside of de la Torre’s group, understood to be an honoring of ancient belief or the current ideological paradigm amongst Huichol people. In this sense, “Echo of the Mountain” is more of a launching board for further research than a definitive historical account.
Regardless, Echevarría’s film is powerful in its revealing of the stories and thoughts that inform a single piece of art that will undoubtedly be transposed into new cultures. It’s both a successful document of the creation of an affecting work of art, and an affecting work of art itself.
Note: “Echo of the Mountain” won the Silver Hugo for Best Documentary at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival where it received an encore screening.
9.5 out of 10 points
Return to CIFF 2014 Coverage
1 hr. 32 min.
Santos de la Torre