“Phantom Ride Phantom,” an experimental Austrian short film that preceded my feature presentation at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, was a flashing, pulsating collage of nature. Completely devoid of dialogue, characters or narrative, the short flipped endlessly between an initial image of railroad tracks and random woodlands with assaulting editing, a creepy synth score, and the obscure sound of a train trundling along its path. The experience was far more jarring than enjoyable, but there was something to be gained from the visceral interrogation into how humans control and are controlled by our environment. If “Phantom Ride Phantom” offers any clear takeaway, it’s that our manipulation of the natural world is inherently destructive to the environment, and ultimately, to ourselves.
After the pointed imagery of the short film faded, the documentary “Caballerango” began. The film, directed by Juan Pablo González (“Las Nubes”) examines the emotional state and daily life of a small rural Mexican town after a beloved horse wrangler, Nando, tragically takes his own life. While “Caballerango” moves slowly, surveying the man’s parents, siblings and coworkers, the film’s truth emerges profoundly toward its conclusion.
The simplicity of the camerawork, whether it be a long take of a farmer driving his pickup, a shot of two men eating that perfectly captures the shadows across their faces, or an entire scene from the windowsill of a kitchen, is an intimate exploration the nuances of daily life in this town with striking intimacy. The director often chooses to juxtapose people in their natural state against landscapes of remarkably golden fields and hills. Despite not keeping the camera directly on his subjects, González expertly telegraphs their energy, adoration and grief.
Some of the family members’ testimony was genuinely heartbreaking. The way that the Nando’s brother described his mother’s reaction to seeing her son’s suicide was not only a painfully detailed account, but one that made me feel as though I knew this family. For an instant, all of that grief seemed to swell in my mind with the same intensity as it appeared on the brother’s visage.
The discussion of the horse wrangler’s passing broadened to an understanding that death is simply a part of life for many members of the town. Death hangs over the film like a shadow, in images of chickens being slaughtered and prepared to eat, and in bleary, heatwaves that cross freshly harvested cornfields. The longer I watched, the more this insistence of mortality subsumed the film’s message.
And yet, González turned this dark quality into something beautiful. Beyond the tragedy at the film’s heart, the director ultimately depicts death not as an obstacle that must swallowed away, but instead a hallowed event through which one finds a sense of peace. This particular wisdom is etched upon nearly every face in the film, as a common understanding of the townspeople.
The themes of “Phantom” and “Caballerango” started to converge. They both speak powerful truths about the freedom and limits of human control, in a physical, survivalist sense, but in the context of personal relationships. While the choice to pair the two films together was initially unclear, their thematic and visual overlap is fascinating to consider.