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Early one Sunday morning in July, the filmmaker receives a phone call informing her that her beloved Tio (uncle) Oscar Ruiz Almeida has been found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in Chihuahua, Mexico. His widow has declared his death a suicide. Most of his family, however, cry murder and point to a number of possible suspects: his business partner, his ranch-hand, the widow herself.
In The Devil Never Sleeps, Portillo returns to the land of her birth to find out exactly who her uncle was and to investigate the circumstances of his death. She explores "irrational" as well as "logical" explanations, searching for clues on both sides of the border and in the history of her family. Old tales of betrayal, passion, lust and supernatural visitation emerge as we follow the filmmaker deep into the life of a community in the homeland of Pancho Villa.
The Devil Never Sleeps exposes the loves and hatreds of a Mexican family convulsed by the death of one of its members. The emotions which Portillo captures in her particular blend of traditional and experimental techniques bring out the nuances of Mexican social and family order. Poetic, tragic, humorous and mythic, this film crosses the borders of personal values, cultural mores and the discipline of filmmaking itself.
Tio Oscar's death revives in Portillo the resonances of her early upbringing and ancestry; the film works both as an exciting "documystery" and as a lyrical account of a personal journey. It uncovers Portillo's feelings for Mexico as she invites the viewer to accompany her to a place beyond fact or fiction, where truth is stranger than any telenovela (Mexican soap opera) and where, as they say in Northern Mexico when evil is lurking, the devil never sleeps!
Orson Welles went south of the border to Mexico to film his fantasy of greed and corruption, A Touch of Evil. Portillo says about The Devil Never Sleeps: "I want to journey back and forth across this same border with a different mission. My work as a filmmaker has been divided between fiction and documentary, between investigative and lyrical non-fiction on the one hand, and realist and stylized dramas on the other. I want to combine these strands into a personal investigation of the past. I use the camera as a witness, but one who is intimate with the experiences of the observed because they are also my own."
Lourdes Portillo's parents moved from Chihuahua, Mexico to Los Angeles, USA with their children when she was thirteen years old. In the years that followed the family remained connected with the relatives they had left behind, but too removed to follow the internecine drama that was slowly unfolding back in "the provinces."
At the center of this drama was Tio (uncle) Oscar, the star son of a middle class family. The mysteries of his life and character, which the film explores but cannot entirely resolve, emerge against the backdrop of the shady history of agriculture in northern Mexico. Oscar Ruiz Almeida was trained as an agronomist and among the first to suggest that the dry earth of Sonora and Chihuahua could be made to bear fruit with proper irrigation. It was the 1940s, and the Mexican government was involved in a host of infrastructural projects aimed at increasing the countries exports of fruit and vegetables. With water from dammed rivers and deep wells, formerly desert ranches began to prosper growing tomatoes for North American tables. Tio Oscar became rich this way, raising his family's social position and launching his own political career, eventually becoming mayor of the coastal city Guaymas.
But the land suffered. Over time, the wells drained the water table and upset the balance of salt water and agua dulce. Sea water began to flow inland through subterraneaous channels, saturating the earth with salt, making it impossible to grow anything. Other contaminants were simultaneously entering the environment of northern Mexico from the air. Portillo alludes visually to the presence of pesticides with archival footage of a dusting plane flying over a field and an eerie shot of a ripe, red tomato being covered in white powder. We learn early in the film that Oscar's first wife died of cancer. The film draws no firm conclusions, but implicitly connects the death of this "strong woman" with a "great love of the land" to the pollution of the land itself.
The Devil Never Sleeps is grounded in both the personal and political culture of northern Mexico. According to Portillo, the rest of Mexico has always looked on Chihuahua as a sort of hinterland and its inhabitants as "barbarians from the north." Gun slinging is still among the most popular sports there; a woman friend of Oscar's confesses that she "loves guns." Chihuahua has hosted some of Mexico's wildest episodes, and frequently harbored outcasts and dissidents. Sixteenth-century Jews fleeing the Inquisition took refuge in the north of Chihuahua. Pancho Villa, the best loved rebel of Mexico's history, adopted Chihuahua as his home. During the Mexican Revolution he used the desert region as the base for the only foreign invasion the United States has ever known.
Portillo's film evokes the heroic past that is always present in the minds of Chihuahuans, but must also contend with the violence and betrayal that characterized the lives of the heroes themselves. At one point the voiceover tells us that "the revolutionary is the heart and soul of Mexico." The next moment we hear shots, and a photo of Pancho Villa gunned down by his former companeros appears on the screen. "Money can fix anything here," the filmmaker's father states. Statements like this might appear to support Welles's bewitching vision of Mexico as the capital of duplicity, however a closer look at The Devil Never Sleeps tells otherwise.
The mystery style in which the filrn is shot is designed to give one the feeling that there is something rotten in Chihuahua. We hear of unpaid debts, perfunctory police investigations, ancient scandals and are inclined to view almost everyone Portillo interviews with suspicion. But as we listen to Tio Oscar's friends and relatives talk about him, it begins to seem less that some of them are liars than that all are believers in separate truths. Each person loyal to the memory they have of Oscar. Indeed, the fact that suicide did not fit Portillo's memory of her "beloved uncle" drove her back to Chihuahua to sort "the truth" from the tangle of accusations his family had spun around his corpse. What she discovers there is that truth (in the Anglo sense of "fact") does not mean the same thing in a land where passions run as deep as salt-water wells.
"Packed with magic and realism... Portillo keeps the suspense up in a way reminiscent of The Thin Blue Line."
-- Tim Appelo, The Oregonian
"Portillo's unblinking use of unadorned history gives a strong sense of the dramatic riches that lie buried beneath many of this country's Mexican roots."
-- The Hollywood Reporter
1994 • Video • 82 min. • Documentary
Color • USA • Spanish and English • Subtitles
Distributor: Xochitl Productions, Women Make Movies
Funded by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the National Latino Communications Center.