Lourdes Portillo in a scene from her documentary “The Devil Never Sleeps,” from 1994.
A rare classic of documentary filmmaking is screening at Anthology Film Archives this Saturday: Lourdes Portillo’s “The Devil Never Sleeps,” from 1994. The film, which is being shown as part of Anthology’s Home Movies: Filmmakers Document Their Families series, is centered on Portillo’s own narration of a family tragedy: the sudden and mysterious death of her favorite uncle, Oscar Ruiz Almeida, in her native Chihuahua, in Mexico. Portillo, a Mexican-American filmmaker, centers the film on her trip back home to find out what happened. As part of her investigation, Portillo films members of her family (and also includes literal home movies); in the process, she overrides any presumed division between the journalistic and the aesthetic realms, composing the film with a visual and dramatic imagination that’s as crucial to the viewing experience as the information she uncovers.
From the start, as Portillo offers, on the soundtrack, a recording of an anguished phone call from her uncle’s widow, Ofelia, and describes her own plan to investigate, the movie (featuring cinematography by Kyle Kibbe) is alive with textured and expressive visions—a view of a map of Mexico in the dark and targeted by the beams of flashlights, a view of Oscar’s bare gravestone (on which Portillo inscribes his name), a spray of flowers landing on it from overhead—and Portillo herself, back in Chihuahua, revisiting such key childhood sites as the movie theatre where she first watched films and where, she says, her love of the art (and of its melodrama) was sparked.
Portillo reconstructs the family history, and the story of her uncle’s life, by way of interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances, all of which are filmed as distinctively and expressively as if they’d been created as dramatic scenes for a fiction film. These images—small-scale masterworks of the intimate baroque—are assembled in an urgent montage alongside still photographs, home movies, shots of documents (such as newspaper clippings), reframed clips from telenovelas, and her original images of places and things that figure in the stories. The effect is to create something like a picture-track, equivalent to a soundtrack, that has a similarly polyphonic complexity and that, in counterpoint with the interviews, the music, and Portillo’s own narration, renders the experience of watching “The Devil Never Sleeps” as thrilling and as psychologically complex as a great scripted drama. (Like too many great American independent films, this one is unavailable on DVD or streaming.)
The story that Portillo uncovers is a classic cinematic mystery: Oscar’s body was found in a public place; he was shot in the head, and a pistol was in his hand. The death was at first reported as a suicide, then as a heart attack, though some who knew Oscar doubted that he had cause or desire to kill himself—but also affirm that others had reason to want him dead. The details that led to his death, and the conflicts that followed it, form a melodramatic tale that reaches deep into family history and personal memories as well as the political, religious, and intimate culture of Mexican life at large. Oscar, a successful rancher and produce exporter as well as a prominent local politician, became a widower and, two months later, remarried—to a woman twenty years his junior.
The rapidity of his remarriage alienated him from his large family; he, his two children with his first wife, and his new wife moved from Guaymas to Chihuahua. There, he opened a clinic and became an acupuncturist; relatives describe the second marriage as troubled. There are stories about a life-insurance policy in which Oscar named his sisters as beneficiaries, and which he’s said to have switched, days before his death, to the benefit of Ofelia and his two children with her. There are stories about Oscar and Ofelia sleeping in separate bedrooms, about Oscar complaining of a longing for affection; there are stories of business disputes in which Oscar was involved, debtors who couldn’t pay Oscar what they owed him. There are rumors about Oscar’s health and his fear that he was suffering from cancer (though a doctor casts doubt on the notion). There are also rumors that Oscar had been having a sexual relationship with a man, that he was being blackmailed by a police officer, that he had AIDS.
In the course of the action, Portillo asks Ofelia to grant an on-camera interview; Ofelia refuses, but Portillo has several phone calls with her, and records them (and also films herself and her crew, in her own hotel room, recording them). She also gathers an extraordinary set of characters from Oscar’s life, who offer a wide and disparate range of testimony regarding his activities and his connections, his financial dealings and his intimate agonies. Portillo speaks with their relatives, doctors, business associates, a lawyer, a police official, a sympathetic priest (whose discussion of his official approach to victims of suicide is wise and humane), and other local residents who knew Oscar (including the man who found Oscar’s body, at a sports facility). What emerges is a similarly wide array of attitudes toward religion, sexuality, politics, class relations, family responsibilities—as well as a gradually unfolding and vivid sense of over-all corruption, ranging through government, journalism, and law enforcement, the pervasive menace of assassination with impunity, and the over-all feeling of power as up for sale. At the same time, Portillo also finds that the story of Oscar’s life remains elusive, that the tellers of his stories bring a variety of perspectives and insights that remain contradictory and inconclusive.
The emotional intensity of the passionate reminiscences and revelations that Portillo’s subjects share turns them, for the time that they’re onscreen, into the expressive equals of movie stars. The home movies that Portillo includes—showing family gatherings and celebrations that aren’t in themselves dramatic—have an effect, achieved likely by accident, that’s akin to the ones that she achieves on purpose. They offer high-contrast lighting, idiosyncratic angles, teeming frames, alluringly incidental objects, gestures and facial expressions of intense and ambiguous emotion that point toward the heightened aesthetic of Portillo’s own compositions. For Portillo, the melodramatic furies of the movies, both dramatic and stylistic, are merely a controlled concentration of ordinary life, in all its extraordinariness.