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Macabre in Morelia: Exploring the Dark Side of Juan Bustillo Oro

Macabre in Morelia: Exploring the Dark Side of Juan Bustillo Oro

The first film I saw at last year’s Morelia International Film Festival opens on the image of a freshly dug grave. Shovelfuls of earth fall into the open pit as two doctors stand above it, lamenting the loss of yet another patient. Some sinister mad science is afoot; the men are lit in portentous chiaroscuro. Their dialogue alludes to a frightful experiment, but an unexpected resonance shines through the genre trappings. This burial set the tone not only for the movie it opens, Juan Bustillo Oro’s atmospheric thriller The Mystery of the Ghastly Face (1935), but also for a festival uncommonly haunted by death.

Perhaps that’s to be expected: last fall, as in years past, the festival took place in the week leading up to the Day of the Dead. Across from the Teatro Matamoros and its red carpet, Morelia’s central square was blanketed in decorations: bright orange marigolds, calavera mannequins, altars piled with offerings. The city is the capital of the Mexican state of Michoacán, home to some of the holiday’s most exuberant celebrations. About an hour away by bus, the town of Pátzcuaro draws tourists from near and far, who flock to the neighboring island of Janitzio on the night of November 1 to climb to its candlelit cemetery. Back in Morelia, local tradition mingles with the decorative esperanto of Halloween: stylish catarinas pose for cell-phone-camera snapshots next to kids trick-or-treating as superheroes.

This was my first time at the festival, which was in its nineteenth edition. Since its founding in 2003, Morelia has stood out among the country’s annual film events by spanning the local and the international. The yearly Michoacán selection provides a platform for the state’s filmmakers, while a partnership with Cannes’s Critics Week brings in cutting-edge art-house work from around the world. Above all, it’s an ideal place to catch up with the latest in Mexican filmmaking, the exclusive focus of the official selection. Apart from the Netflix-backed A Cop Movie, few films in this section had much overseas-distribution muscle behind them, making it an important showcase for voices still unknown abroad.

Though the festival created a pocket of calm in Morelia’s historic center, the films I saw there reflected the turbulent conflicts raging outside it—real-life tragedies that contributed to the event’s haunted atmosphere. In the fifteen years since President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug trafficking, violent, gruesome, and inexplicable death has become a constant threat to communities across the country. Nearly 100,000 people are now missing, according to the National Search Commission, their loved ones left to mourn without closure, let alone justice. Michoacán is disputed territory; the U.S. State Department advises against visiting. The cab driver who took me to my bus from Mexico City hesitated when I asked him about the region. He didn’t consider it safe—one of his cousins had been killed there several months ago. In Michoacán, crime networks and protection rackets that long shaped the drug trade have taken over chunks of the formal economy too. Less than two hours west of Morelia, the city of Uruapan sits at the center of Mexico’s avocado-growing heartland; its murder rate is among the highest in the world.

Top of page: The Man Without a Face; above: an audience at the nineteenth Morelia International Film Festival
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