THE POVERTY LINE : Eugenio Polgovsky’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ [9/10]

Tropic of Cancer is a truly exceptional, commendably economic, mid-length film about a rural, dirt-poor 'family' eking out a living in the countryside near the Mexican town of San Luis Potosi, which straddles the latitudinal meridian of the title. There's no narration, and no explanatory context of any kind: only the title and the closing credits give any clue to where what we're seeing is taking place. There's also very little dialogue, of which perhaps three-quarters is translated via subtitles Polgovsky clearly wants us to have an unmediated view of his subjects as they go about hunting and/or trapping a wide variety of animals and birds – in brushy, arid terrain only a hundred yards from a highway thunderously traversed by eighteen-wheelers. "It's rough work to live," as one leather-faced oldster notes, surveying his/her dusty domain from the shadow of a porch-chair.

As the saying goes, the film is 'small' but beautifully formed: Polgovsky has an instinctive knack for putting his low-tech digital camera in the right place at the right time; for knowing when to show us the full sweep of the mountain-fringed landscape and when to zero in on a particularly dramatic incident. He – and therefore we – are with the 'hunters' (some of them no more than children) every step of the way: there are sequences in which animals are killed on-camera which will be distressing for some viewers, but they are justified as an honest depiction of these people's everyday struggle for survival – in the venerable tradition of Bunuel's Land Without Bread (1933), or Kalatozishvili's Salt For Svaneti (1930).

Though very much a one-off, Tropic of Cancer isn't a million miles away from two more recent points of reference, namely Lisandro Alonso's two slice-of-life Argentinian features, La Libertad and Los Muertos: Polgovsky's subject-matter indeed encompasses both 'freedom' and 'the dead' (and is, in one sense, all about cages and their size). While it hasn't attracted the same kind of noisy critical fervour that has greeted Alonso's prize-garlanded tour of the world's film festivals, on reflection it's perhaps more impressive than both (and leagues above, say, Carlos Reygadad's Mexican variant Japon) as there's much less of an arty/poetic feel, not to mention a rather faster pace (though such things are, of course, relative).  Polgovsky even gets away with brief interludes scored to the classical (and mournfully Tarkovsky-ish) organ music of Cesar Franck, in start contrast to the way Reygadas came such a cropper with his pseuds'-corner interpolation of Arvo Part.

As with Jose Luis Torres Leiva's Valparaiso chronicle No Place Nowhere (2004), meanwhile, Polgovsky makes no bones about his camera's presence: in refreshing contrast to those coy documentarians who avoid any acknowledgement of their own existence, Polgovsky isn't even bothered if we catch some brief (and amusing) glimpses of his sound-man's fluffy boom. Seemingly made on a zero budget, Tropic of Cancer isn't what you could call a 'good looking picture' – but these rough edges befit its status as an artefact forged in the dust-blown, thorny, hardscrabble surroundings we see on screen; and, in any case, the real subject-matter here is so ugly that any kind of aestheticised or fancy presentation would be grotesquely incongruous.

This material doesn't call for punch-pulling, or even much in the way of subtlety. Polgovsky provides his own motto: towards the end we're shown a newspaper advert with the headline reads "Eliminate your myopia!" (translated in the subtitles for added emphasis). And the director duly ensures that we obtain a 20/20 view of these people's lives, of how they fit into the tough economic framework of their nation – and, by logical extension, of the world. We only see the 'full picture' very late in the day, when the purpose of the hunters' environmentally-unfriendly, wildlife-depleting, fundamentally wasteful activities is finally revealed – and with it the political, angrily polemical nature of Polgovsky's project.

Taken by surprise, we at this point realise that the strength of the film lies as much in its deceptive, intricate structure as in its remarkable content. We have become so immersed in the hunters' stark world that when 'city folk' suddenly appear in their fancy, airconditioned cars, dousing their coiffure with ecocidal hairspray, they seem to be aliens beamed in from a different, more affluent galaxy. And it's then that the pieces of the 'puzzle' all fall into place: after what has been a slow-burning (perhaps occasionally patience-taxing) opening and middle-section, Polgovsky's sobering finale provides a thought-provoking, almost unbearably moving conclusion that resonates long after the credits have rolled, and which elevates Tropic of Cancer to the very first rank of contemporary documentary cinema.

Neil Young
26th March, 2006

TROPIC OF CANCER : [9/10] : Tropico de cancer : Mexico 2004 : Eugenio POLGOVSKY : 52 mins approx

seen at Pictureville cinema, NMPFT, Bradford, (UK), 8th March 2006 – public show – Bradford Film Festival

originally seen at Viennale Film Festival, October 2005 [rating : 8/10]