Review: Cenote

A cenote is a sinkhole, but the term originates from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where the Maya would draw water from them. Water, and the spaces in which it’s found, are often linked to a civilisation’s rituals (the Maya also used the cenotes for ceremonies of sacrifice), and Oda Kaori’s documentary-sensorium immerses itself in the cenotes and the stories they give rise to. Oda’s camera drops down, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Insomnia,” ‘into that world inverted / where left is always right, / where the shadows are really the body,’ and roams around. She finds brilliant light-shows from where the sunlight flows in, impressions of forms breaking into new arrangements, and that always full-of-wonderment sensation when, from beneath the surface, the top of the body of water seems like the bottom, and as the camera ascends it seems to descend. Cenote’s more ruminative movements contrast with Lucien Castiang-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, with its heaving plunges and thrusts through the water, its overwhelmed soundtrack, its charcoal abstractions. Oda’s underwater sound design is lighter, with the sibilant intake of breath through the mask, slow gurgling, and the occasional splash; and the film’s close inspection can abstract the matter it records, but in a manner more redolent of Victor Moreno’s The Hidden City, where certain effects (the cartwheeling sparks from a saw working in darkness) begin to look like animation. But those films both are phenomenological portraits of labour, whereas Cenote is a study of the connection between physical environment and folklore. And yet the film goes beyond this characterisation. Punctuating the underwater sections are portraits of the nearby community, captured in ravishing 8mm; the grainy reds, greens, and whites of these inserts vibrate so much it’s as if they’re brushstrokes in the midst of being committed to canvas. The juxtaposition between place and people is made more direct by the relationship of sound to image, as the footage in the cenote is accompanied by voice-overs detailing how the spaces have been used (in practical and sacred terms), and the more tragic stories associated with them (the cenotes have become accidental graves for some). Oda’s navigation of the cenotes poses a question about the connection between place and human history, and is always alert to both the resonances for the people who live in close proximity to them and the pristine tactility of the cenotes themselves. 

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