A Wonderful First Feature Film

in 57th Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias

by Marco Lombardi

A boy, Elder, has just pickpocketed someone. We hear the robbery victim shouting and watch the boy running through an alley, seeking refuge. It looks like the entrance of a mouse hole, and in fact the boy – and maybe the viewer too, who has to see him from that point of view – can be viewed as a mouse. Similarly mice-like are the miners described by Dark Skull (Viejo Calavera), just as the caves they work in resemble mouse burrows. Here is the key to this wonderful first feature film by Kiko Russo, a young Bolivian who studied directing at the University of Cinema in Buenos Aires. He was told by his grandmother about the miners’ life, but the sensitive way he shows these humiliated men turns their condition into a metaphor for the human condition itself.

Elder steals other people’s things as “the others” stole his youth, forcing him to work as a miner after his father’s death. He seems to be a person in need of being saved, and that’s why his uncle takes the boy under his charge. In spite of that, Elder starts drinking, becoming an alcoholic in a short time. After some highs and lows, including a serious accident he causes inside the mine, one day he bursts into the spa where the miners are spending their usual yearly vacation, threatening them with a knife. It may seem the very last sign of Elder’s torment, but in fact it is his last attempt to prick the miners’ conscience. They don’t understand his effort, which is why we see the boy, in the final sequence of the film, taking his uncle away from that inferno the back of a pickup track. The meaning of “dark skull” is reversed: the uncle, who was supposed to save the boy, is in fact the one who needed to be saved. Elder is therefore the strongest one, not the weakest, much as marginalized people are shunted aside just because their “truth” scares those who seem socially well and happily integrated.

Dark Skull supports this thesis with a gallery of faces that leads us to think of Pasolini’s films, being all characters different and real, not generalized, and hollowed by the pain of living. Besides, the strength of Dark Skull lies in its photography, which is genuinely powerful and sincere, never self-conscious. There are several sequences indicating that: one takes place in a wood where Elder is on the right, while on the left emerges a (symbolical) fog, as it were his “best friend”; all those sequences that exude moisture, making us feel in the very centre of the mine; and another one in a swimming pool whose waves, caused by a chair thrown into the water by the boy, reflect on the ceiling – like a projector – some moving images that represent Elder’s anxiety in a perfect way. In other words the photography is at the same time realistic and symbolic, as in the great cinema masters (Luchino Visconti, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman). The director Kiko Russo has probably improved his visual sensitivity by studying and living in Buenos Aires, a city that lives between these two different souls.

Dark Skull has already won a Special Mention at the Locarno Film Festival 2016 (Filmmakers of the Present section) and the main award from the jury of the Official Dramatic Competition at the Cartagena International Film Festival 2017, further proof that we may be witnessing the birth of an important new artist.

Edited by Godfrey Cheshire