By: Hawk Ripjaw (Two Beers) –
Quiet, meditative gardener Alberto (Vicente Santos) has been summoned back to his hometown in the Dominican Republic following the murder of his father. Upon arrival, he is incessantly pressured by his sisters Patria (Yuberbi de la Rosa) and Karina (Judith Rodriguez Perez) to avenge their father and honor his family. This opposes Alberto’s closely held Evangelical Christian beliefs, which themselves are at odds with the local culture of Santo Domingo and their mourning of Alberto’s father. As Alberto moves in a daze through Santo Domingo, he’s driven closer to violent confrontation with his father’s known killer and culture, honor, and faith begin to fall into disarray.
Ostensibly one of the biggest selling points of Cocote is how its visual style is constantly in flux, even between scenes. Color grading, film stock, camera movement, and even aspect ratio change with each new scene. There’s a wide-angle, color shot of a swimming pool and its occupants. A static, tight shot in black and white of Alberto driving. An entire sequence shot through the doorway of a darkened room looking out into the daylight as Alberto talks with an acquaintance. A perspective shot racing down a bright, colorful dirt road as ominous music swells. There are lively sequences of prayer and mourning shot with a handheld camera. Director Nelson Caro Del Los Santos Arias utilizes his background in documentary filmmaking in these sequences, which feel natural and personal. They feel as if one were to have walked into one of these events, rather than a scripted or staged scene.
The stylistic restlessness is simultaneously jarring and intriguing, particularly how the visual and sound design so ingeniously informs the tone of each individual scene. The trade-off is a fairly obfuscated narrative: this isn’t the sort of linear storytelling that American cinema has practiced for decades. Dominican culture and faith is as much of the story as anything else for much of Cocote, and that may be misinterpreted as unfocused or even lazy for those that don’t buy into how de Los Santos Arias demands to go against the grain. A good chunk of the film explores some odd religious rites, including loud prayer, chanting, and loud mourning for days at a time. Sometimes these are intermingled with more familiar Christian beliefs and practices, but de Los Santos Arias is as mysterious with them as he is with his visual style. These scenes, and the connective tissue consisting of shots of nature, all carry immense meaning and it’s often transfixing to watch all of it unfold.
For all of that, it’s hard not to wish that Cocote was just a bit more coherent. It’s one of the most fascinating movies of 2018, but feels at times deliberately obtuse, throwing up an almost smug barrier to entry not unlike last year’s O Ornitologo. The way that Cocote often teases a bit more of the narrative before stepping back for more visual experimentation feels somewhat counterintuitive for the story it wants to tell, particularly given that story’s simplicity.
Cocote is nothing if not daring. It demands an unusual amount of attention to fully absorb its narrative and aesthetic eccentricities but rewards that attention with a deep and fascinating trip through the culture of the Dominican Republic. Each new scene feels like something else to unpack and examine. It’s challenging, sometimes frustrating, but completely unique.
Cocote (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time the aspect ratio changes
Do a Shot: whenever Alberto is chastised for his faith
Take a Drink: for each sequence of prayer or mourning
Do a Shot: whenever Alberto is confronted by the idea of revenge