SFIFF56: Mai Morire by Enrique Rivero

Enrique Rivero’s second feature film takes us back to Mexico, this time to the beautiful landscape and waterways of Xochimilco, where boats are the main mode of transportation. We are reminded of the river Styx and its ferrymen carrying people from the living world to the underworld; in the opening scene, Chavo is ferried on the river toward her dying mother.

But this is not a film about death. It is about life, continuity, transition and tradition. Chavo (Margarita Saldaña), goes home to take care of her dying 99-year old mother, but that responsibility is just one part of the litany of her days: fetching water, taking her children to school, planning a party for her mother’s 100th birthday, tending the garden. It’s not just that life goes on after death. The point is that life and death sit side by side, like the banks of a river, headed in the same directions. There is a transition, but not a boundary (like the River Styx) between life and death; further, that transition goes both ways – the living become dead, and the dead always come back to the living.

This idea is fleshed out in subtle ways, especially between Chavo and her mother. Her mother is ready for death, eager to transition into its placid joyfulness. In a lovely light touch of irony she talks to Chavo about the places in which she has buried her children’s umbilical cords – even the source of life has a death. Chavo herself has what she thinks are premonitions about death; dream sequences with beheaded dolls, bodies floating in the river, and her bare feet anchored to the boat with knives suggest her anxieties about death. But her anxieties are not about death but about her own life, her future, and what will happen when her mother’s death precipitates a sure change.

But the sweet and serene scenes around the town’s celebration of Day of the Dead fully illustrate Mr. Rivera’s intention. The Day of the Dead is a fiesta with food, celebrations, candles, and stories about the departed. The townsfolk sit with their ancestors’ images and pass on the stories of their life to their children. One of the best scenes in the film takes place at night during this celebration. Several boats filled with townsfolk and illuminated by candles glide smoothly across the river, the candles flickering in the dark. Over the rhythmic sound of the paddles and the undercurrent of water is the sound of the townspeople and their litany of Hail Marys. This perfectly-crafted scene makes it clear that life and death travel together, and there is much to be respected and honored.

In a brief but poignant scene, the urbanized Chavo observes that in rural Xochilimilco time passes strangely. While this is partly a nod toward the different rhythm of rural life, she gently summarizes the film’s theme: modern concepts of time do not apply to a place where death is neither a marker of time nor a signification of the end.

Mai Morire (Never Die) . Dir. Enrique Rivero. Una Comunión, et al, 2012. In Spanish.

In competition at the SFIFF56 (New Directors section), and winner of a Technical Contribution award for Cinematography at the Rome Film Festival, 2012.