Life is a dream

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The lyric refrain from Calderon (via Raul Ruiz) running through Juan Carlos Rulfo's poetically inflected documentary In the Pit (playing at Facets through March 15) seems almost a divine joke ... but maybe it's just the culture. "That's how it is down there," my wife, who lived in Mexico City for a while, insisted. "Lives packed to bursting, yet everyone's on the edge of a precipice--it's beautiful and desperate at the same time."

The precipice here is the second deck of the Periferico, a ribbonlike freeway slashing across the Mexican metropolis, with miles of new caissons and castings and enormous concrete trusses that everyone involved with the project considers the devil's own handiwork, its success necessarily hinging, according to on-site superstition, on the grisly extinction of lives. Quid pro quo, a savage deity worthy of Mel Gibson, rewarding faithful observance with yet another sacrificial death. But for what's purportedly a documentary, In the Pit runs daringly close to David Lynch territory (though Rulfo only admits to the influence of Herzog and Melies)--even the vertically plunging "pit" in the movie's opening shot, through an odd optical inversion (sometimes known as the crater/dome effect--might not work for you, but it sure did for me), initially registers as a kind of protruding phallic worm from Dune. A lot of strange goings on in this near-surreal confection, and the miasmic gray smog and blanketing midnight ambience (eat your heart out Michael Mann; Rulfo gets the ebony envelope right first time out) create an infernal dreamscape without a lot of light but more than a little hope in the company of its voracious colossal beast. By the end there's a five-minute traveling overhead view--shot from a  helicopter down the whole length of deck--that gets everyone up to speed on what the gods have ultimately wrought. And there are gods, or at least one such, as Shorty, runt of the working litter and cruel butt of everyone else's pranks, more than willingly attests. Not that it does him any good, these articles of fidelity, though inevitably he parries the filmmaker's nettlesome attentions with "Well, what do you think?" Not as Socratic strategy but more as an evasion, like metaphysical camouflage, so as not to offend the capricious spirits of the place.

As why wouldn't he? The gods must really be crazy here ...

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