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"All Your Dead Ones": Carlos Moreno's Tragicomedy of Violence

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The absurdity of normalized violence lies at the heart of "All Your Dead Ones," Carlos Moreno's striking Sundance crowd-pleasing movie. It was up for the 2011 Grand Jury Prize in the World Dramatic Competition and won the Cinematography award for Diego Jimenez's evocative lensing. That was the finest moment of a long run through film festivals in Latin America and the world. Years after its premiere, this Art House-ready film still offers a resonant parable for our times. With armed conflicts taking lives in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, and elsewhere, it speaks not only of a moment in the history of Colombia. The ghosts it conveys could appear anywhere in the world.

Drive into the Darkness

The movie credits run over an ominous shot of a country road at night from the point of view of an unseen car driver. A mournful dirge on the soundtrack confirms things are not OK. But then, director Moreno lulls you into a false sense of security. We cut to the humble cabin of poor peasant Salvador (Álvaro Rodríguez), having animalistic sex with his wife, Carmen (Martha Marquez). He prepares for the day, and we are regaled to his mundane routine. The news on the radio alerts us that municipal elections are taking place, but Salvador is only interested in going to work on his cornfield. He gets his kicks by training roosters for cockfights. One does not make it after a particular grizzly one. He unceremoniously throws the dead bird into a river and prepares to harvest the fruits of his labor. And that’s when social realism goes out the window, and things get messy.

Salvador finds a neat path that crosses his field and turns to hide a pile of corpses from view. None of them have any wounds, or blood for that matter. It’s a pet peeve of mine that too many Hollywood blockbusters relish brutal violence but gloss over its effects. Alas, that is not the case here. The lack of bloodshed gives the pile of lacerated humanity an otherworldly, ghostly quality. It is not any less shocking and pivots the movie’s focus - and your attention - to the real issue that concerns “All Your Dead Ones”: normalizing murder to the extreme that it becomes a minor nuisance, like electricity going out, or the trash collectors failing to show up.

The Politics of Not Caring

This is not your regular crime movie. The movie becomes an adventurous, blackhearted comedy about a regular man trying to do the right thing and getting trumped every step of the way. He goes to the mayor’s office, but a zealous secretary dismisses him. He goes to the local radio, but the local journalist, who doubles as a DJ, balks at giving the news - until it serves him to collect unpaid bills for campaign ads. The local military is more interested in having breakfast, and chances are, they might have something to do with it. Or perhaps it was the narcos. Or the guerrillas. Whoever it was, it does not matter. The town is overrun with flyers about missing people, but no one seems to care.

A more conventional movie would treat this as a mystery to be solved. Surely, some guilt must be assigned. But Moreno is more interested in contemplating a moral crime committed after the mass murder of innocents. It’s the crime of indifference to other people’s suffering. It’s not just a crime but an affliction, a disease of our collective conscience, a weakness of the human condition. It becomes more acute - or evident - in places where violence is more overt: war zones, poor countries where life is worth very little. We fool ourselves into thinking it’s what we must do to stay alive. Look out for yourself. You can’t do anything for those who were killed. Nothing will bring them back. It may be true, which makes it even more monstrous.

As Salvador goes from authority to authority, looking for someone to pay attention to him, he is subjected to scorn. He is commonly referred to as “crossed-eyes” and other petty nicknames over his strabismus - I did not realize he suffered from this condition until the first time he was made fun of -. Another flank of attack has to do with the beauty of his wife, in contrast to his homely, rough appearance. It’s a roundabout way to dismiss his concerns, even before he can manifest them.

The Risk of Bearing Witness

Gallows humor flourishes when the mayor (Jorge Herrera) and two hapless soldiers finally get to the crime scene and treat the tragedy as a logistical nuisance, distracting them from managing the election. This is where Moreno drains his movie of real-life references and crosses into the territory of a fable. We see real-life right-wing president José Uribe on the newscasts blasting out of Salvador's TV in the movie's opening scenes. Still, besides using the images to establish the political event, "All Your Dead Ones" steers clear of declaring an alliance with any ideological tendency. The warring candidates are designed just by their names. If he points fingers, it is due to the manipulative mechanics of the electoral game: voters have to be trucked in from afar, food and drinks provided, and the results are treated as a mere suggestion. Think of the mess Donald Trump unleashed. Now imagine it as the status quo. Moreno's agenda is not political but humanistic. Left and right can embrace the movie and shake their heads at the sorry state of affairs it depicts.

Salvador and Carmen may be operating out of an instinct of self-preservation. Surely, they can be made the scapegoats. It would be ludicrous but within the realm of the possible. Worse yet, they can be killed, and their bodies unceremoniously thrown in the pile. But they find their moral backbone when the issue becomes personal. Carmen recognizes one of the bodies as that of Silvio, the disappeared son of her neighbor, Abigail. The body opens his eyes when his humanity is acknowledged. He has a name. He is somebody’s son.

Leaving the Dead Behind

Moreno is enamored of metaphysical theatrics. That's where the immaculate bodies come from, and the gesture of having them surprisingly standing up at some point, as if compelling the living actually to deal with them. He closes with the cast taking a virtual curtain call in a wide shot of a lovely country view. It's like he wants the movie to be a theater play. Curiously, Moreno's career took a more populist path, which fed into the tendency to mine drug culture as a source of entertainment. He made a film adaptation of a popular TV series, "The Snitch Cartel" (2011), which premiered the same year as "All Your Dead Ones." He went on to produce and direct a TV phenomenon of his own, the long-running series "Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal" (2012), based on the life of the infamous cartel honcho. It's safe to say you would not have Netflix jumping into the fray of narco-soaps doing "Narcos" without this precedent. Since then, he has remained extremely busy in the Colombian TV industry.

“All Your Dead Ones” is so good you can’t help but feel sorry that Moreno started so decisively away from cinema screens. The movie is edited with an urgent pulse. Cinematographer Diego Jimenez deservedly won the Cinematography Award at the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Check out the fantastic, phantasmagoric shot of roosters blocking Salvador in the background with their darkened silhouettes. The clean path leads to the mountain of human bodies, both surreal and aberrant, like something out of “The X-Files.” Alas, by now, we know all too well that it is the product of monstrous humanity. Just as you are about to fall into a pit of despair, the movie sends you off with a cosmic joke as cruel as it is effective - and true. You will laugh and choke at the same time. Life goes on. Isn’t it awful?

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