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Review: Dominican drama ‘Cocote's’ stylistic ambitions overwhelm its humanity

Review: Dominican drama ‘Cocote's’ stylistic ambitions overwhelm its humanity
Vicente Santos in the movie "Cocote." (Grasshopper Film)

One of the most striking elements of Santo Domingo-born Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias’ “Cocote,” a story of loss, religion and family ties, is the tension between its art-film ambitions and freely felt human emotions.

City-dwelling Alberto (Vicente Santos), a nondescript gardener for a wealthy family, is drawn home to deal with his father’s death at the hands of a powerful local gangster (Pepe Sierra), but finds his evangelical Christian ways butting up against his family’s traditional grieving rituals, which include wailing, animal killings and their belief that he must avenge his dad’s murder.

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Hopscotching between boxy and wide aspect ratios, color palettes and between scenes impressionistic in their details and those direct in their conversational expressiveness, De Los Santos Arias finds plenty of arresting unpredictability. But instead of the movie’s formal and informal sides asserting each other in a tug of war between the head and heart — a natural concept through which to dramatize someone struggling with personal mourning and culturally pressurized vengeance — the collision feels impenetrable and haphazard.

Just when Alberto’s situation begins to feel palpably fraught, the filmmaker’s aesthetics pull you away when they should deepen the crisis. For some moviegoers, this might make for an invigorating style exercise: Does a self-conscious 360-degree pan better capture Alberto’s state of mind, or a fiercely argued exchange between him and his sister? But that’s more the side effect of a movie that prefers to be willfully enigmatic than fully engaged.

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‘Cocote’

In Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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