DIRECTED BY: Francisco Athié
FEATURING: Marco Antonio Arzate, Urara Kusanagi
PLOT: Trapped underground, a miner hallucinates, eventually encountering a green alien creature who leads him into the spirit world.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On sheer weirdness, this trip skirting the veil that separates life and death would make the List easily. A couple of faults hold it back from making it on the first ballot, however: it’s very slow to get started, and the imagination behind the visual effects greatly exceeds the budget’s capacity to realize them.
COMMENTS: With this production, I get the feeling that Francisco Athié saw the chance to make the dream visionary feature of a lifetime and decided to seize it, even though the necessary funding wasn’t there. When Vera‘s imagery is on, it’s mind-meltingly sublime, but there are too many times when the CGI isn’t up to the tasks Athié sets for it. The movie serves as a reminder of why you should always shell out the big bucks for the top-shelf peyote, and not save a few pesos buying the shriveled-up buttons on sale for half off.
Although the love that went into it is clear, Vera feels stretched out: there is probably forty-five minutes of good stuff, and fifteen minutes of amazing stuff, here, but it’s padded out to an eighty-minute feature. The first ten minutes wordlessly depict life in an isolated Mexican village, while the title character doesn’t show up until the movie is halfway over. The first hallucinatory moment introduces the trademark visual awkwardness: it’s meant to depict a bone-chilling wasteland, but it looks like the main character is suddenly playing a mime walking in a stiff wind in front of a green-screen snowstorm. After twenty-five minutes with very little of consequence occurring, you may feel like giving up on Vera, but if you stick around you will be rewarded, because things start cooking after the old man trapped in the mine adds urine and blood from his penis (ouch!) to a cauldron of boiling lead in order to conjure up a jade statue of a Mayan god. The miner simultaneously prays to the Christian God, and to “Lady Balam” and the Winds, and modern mythology is added to the Christian/pagan mix when he discovers a little green (wo)man who projects a stream of 0s and 1s from an orifice in her torso.
This creature, the mystical “Vera” of the title, is at times crudely computer-generated, with a bobbing head that makes it resemble a character in a Star Wars ripoff video game, while at other times the entity is portrayed by the mesmerizing Japanese dancer Urara Kusanagi. The two different embodiments of the character are certainly weird, but probably not in the way Athié intended. The main effect is to draw attention to the cheapness of the effects, and make you wish the CGI had been scrapped for more scenes with the graceful and mysterious Kusanagi. Marvelous mystical visions accompany the doomed man as Vera guides him to the afterlife: a child skeleton that dances with Vera, the Virgin Mary appearing in a stalactite, and the green-skinned guide fetching fruit off of an Eden-like tree. And if the visuals are at times sketchy, the music and sound design, which ranges from ambient drones to Amazonian percussion, is always on point setting the chthonic mood. The resulting concoction mixes the promiscuously mythological preoccupations of an Alejandro Jodorowsky with the deliberate pacing of an Andrei Tarkovsky, but, unfortunately, as realized by the visual effects team behind a SyFy shark movie.
“Bright Lights Film Journal” supplies insight on the film’s title: “According to writer-editor-director Athié, Vera ‘means trust and faith in Cyrillic (Russian), the truth in Italian, the side of the road in Spanish, and it is a very beautiful feminine name. Therefore, in a way, it points to the faith and trust you need to follow a path that is true to your own perception of the otherworldly’.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by NGBoo, who described it as “a beautiful metaphysical fantasy, that explores the afterlife, inspired by Mayan and Christian religions.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)