What if obliteration was humanity’s last chance for retribution? That’s the premise of Sanctorum (2019), a Mexican drama about the ongoing civil war. Here’s a deep dive into what the director Joshua Gil conveys in this greatly symbolical, mysterious film.
In a small village in Oaxaca state in Mexico, people live in between the devil and the deep blue sea. Tormented by cartels, and unjustly persecuted by the government, the indigenous locals unite in order to survive. When the enemy closes in, the last resort arrives in the form of the apocalypse.
Civil war seen through the eyes of indigenous people of Mexico
As of today, Mexico’s gravely twisted in its over decade-long civil war. The country fails to protect the poorest citizens who fall prey to drug cartels as well as the military. These locals aren’t educated people – all they know is farming as poignantly explained by one of the villagers – and their persecutions on the grounds of drug distribution happen while the government sweeps the real culprits under the rag.
Sanctorum (2019) scrutinizes the situation by looking at one of the villages in the war-torn Oaxaca. Being cornered by the ruthless gangs and the state-controlled army, the indigenous people turn to nature, in a desperate attempt to flee the dangers. The director Joshua Gil introduces Mexican nature – its raw, visceral and captivating grandeur – as one of the protagonists of the story. In fact, Sanctorum (2019) often feels like a wake-up call that draws humans as intruders in the lush gardens of the Earth. They responds, but on their own terms.
On a larger scale, Joshua Gil tells a story of the apocalypse, which takes the form of sky bringing down its wrath. In many scenes of Sanctorum (2019) humans seem insignificant when standing against the spacious valleys, clouds that corrode monumental mountains and the densely populated forests. Gil paints humans as fragile, almost grotesque in comparison with the powerful forces of nature – not only nature itself, but also the fabulous creatures and the Underworld that appear in the film.
Existential horror in Sanctorum (2019)
Although Sanctorum (2019) only dips its fingers in genre filmmaking, horror in its more disquieting (not bloody) form is written all over the film. Joshua Gil populates the mystical forests with many kinds of fabulous creatures. The result is closer to the way Guillermo Del Toro flirts with the genre – indirectly, and in the way horror stems from the situation the characters find themselves in.
Even the beginning heralds the disturbing atmosphere that the director maintains later on, which draws from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – a bird’s eye view on a forest, as well as playing with details such as the water in a mountain stream turning red. Shocking and scaring the audience comes without the need to show violence – it’s enough to observe a cartel execution from miles away, and let the gunshots and a body bonfire do the work.
Such visceral form brings The Witch (2015) to mind, as well as another Mexican horror about the death-bringing darkness in the woods, Las Tinieblas (2016).
On top of that, Sanctorum (2019) is also a ghost story. One particular character – the Teacher – speaks to his deceased wife who glimpses in peaceful moments spent in front of a modest fireplace or during supper. However, this is far from unsettling – on the contrary, the ghost appears in the most peaceful of ways.
Horror is induced by the constant unknown, and in that sense it reminds me of a more recent film His House (2020), a horror based on refugee trauma. That’s why I view this Sanctorum (2019) as an existential horror too – there’s no natural way out of this mess, and the imminence of death feels tragic and truly disturbing.
That horror part benefits from Jericho trims, much in the vibe of the unforgettable sound design of Arrival (2016) by the ever-missed master Johann Johannsson. Like an omen of destruction heard from the clouds, this alarming – almost extraterrestrial – sound imbues Gil’s vision with a more abstract feeling.
Mexican mythology in Sanctorum (2019)
Despite the fact that Sanctorum (2019) talks about a very real problem, Joshua Gil delves into mysticism and finds inspiration in the beliefs of the locals.
The hairless dogs, Xoloitzcuintli
The hairless, bony dogs that appear in the forest and accompany the wandering kid. These dogs are known as xoloitzcuintli. According to the mythology, their role is to guide the dead souls in the mythological underworld called Mictlán. The earliest appearances of these animals date back to Mesoamerican frescos and drawings. Fun fact: they were an object of fascination of Christopher Columbus upon his discovery of the new world.
In Sanctorum (2019) the dogs watch out over the kid in the forest. It’s the first sign foreshadowing the boy’s imminent departure from the land of the living. When the pack of xoloitzcuintli dash through the sultry myst, Joshua Gil points to the way the Underworld grows into our dimension.
Interestingly, the dogs can also bring forward another interpretation. Due to their hairless skin, the xoloitzcuintli were perfect heat conductors, and often stayed with the elderly to keep them warm at night. They could be seen as emissaries of the deceased mother who wants to take care of her son.
The funeral customs
The funeral ritual we see in Sanctorum (2019) is also traditional for indigenous Zapotec people. Since much of the film’s symbolism finds solid fundamentals in the Mexican culture, the customs depicted by Joshua Gil are also cherished until this day.
The belief of the Zapotec is that their ancestors originated from the clouds and upon dying their souls ascend to the above. Such a concept ties with Christianity’s view on eternal life, however Zapotec myths included numerous deities and versions of their creation.
In Zapotec culture death is not celebrated in a quiet way, but is accompanied by music, ceremonious clothes and colorful flowers. Masks which are ornamented with horns and floral pieces derive from Dia de los Muertos. In a sense, the funeral presented in Sanctorum (2019) feels contemplative, however it has also the underlining of the danger that is closing in, and the wake reminds of a last preparation before the clash.
The breathtaking cinematography of Sanctorum (2019)
Part of why this film works so well is rooted in its spectacular cinematography.
Breathtaking landscapes, wide shots and the contemplation of nature reminds of the Colombian drama Monos (2019), but the director Joshua Gil clearly draws inspiration from the acclaimed The Thin Red Line (1999) too. The way the film builds contrast and depicts humans as intruders in the magnificent, stoic nature connects Gil’s movie with Terrence Malick’s masterpiece.
All in all, Sanctorum (2019) poetically looks at the consequences brought around by hatred, and injustice. Through the means of magic and power of nature, Joshua Gil stresses out the need to start over, and secure a better future for Mexico. While the film is an example of slow cinema, and it leaves much room for interpretation as some concepts are vaguely sketched, it is what independent cinema should be about.
This analysis is part of the online coverage of New Horizons International Film Festival 2020. The fully online edition takes place Find out more about the festival on the festival’s official website.