It’s been said that a jazz musician is someone who never plays anything the same way twice. If that’s true, then Dominican director Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias may qualify as the jazziest filmmaker of all time. His first fiction feature, Cocote, is a dazzling collage of styles and approaches in which every scene—practically every shot—feels different from the one that came before. Evoking the restless unpredictability of a late-period Jean-Luc Godard film, de Los Santos Arias’s images shift form almost constantly—from film to video, from black and white to color, from widescreen to full frame—as the writer-director experiments with a vast array of aesthetic stylings, everything from slow-cinema stillness to ethnographic vérité to lustrous film noir. The result is an invigorating, if slightly exhausting, parade of near-perpetual innovation, in which the only constant is the filmmaker’s stylistic dynamism.
De Los Santos Arias employs his arsenal of divergent but oddly harmonious aesthetic stratagems to tell a fundamentally simple tale of a devout gardener, Alberto (Vicente Santos), who travels back to his hometown in the Dominican Republic to attend the funeral of his murdered father. Once he arrives, his sisters, Patria (Yuberbi de la Rosa) and Karina (Judith Rodriguez Perez), begin pressuring him to avenge Alberto’s death, something the quiet, gentle-hearted Alberto is loath to do. Cocote slowly moves toward a confrontation between Alberto and the local criminal (Pepe Sierra) who’s responsible for the killing, but de Los Santos Arias is less concerned with the drive toward retribution than with the liminality of experience and issues of religion and ritual.
Throughout Cocote, Alberto remains an enigma, a cipher who’s primarily talked to and yelled at. De Los Santos Arias offers little direct insight into the character’s mind, though the film’s multifarious form suggests a deeply fractured identity. Large portions of the film are devoted to recording the syncretic religious customs of Alberto’s Dominican village, where Christianity mingles with local traditions to form ecstatic hybrid rituals that seem to excavate the deepest emotions of its participants. De Los Santos Arias documents these customs with visceral intensity, placing us amid the prayers, chants, dances, and fervid wailing without explaining much of their meaning. But he doesn’t really have to, as the raw emotions speak for themselves. So, too, do de Los Santos Arias’s often astonishingly beautiful images, which capture the vibrant natural beauty of the Dominican Republic, its rich turquoise waters and deep emerald forests. De Los Santos Arias can make even a container full of dead fish looks positively sumptuous.
But Cocote is, for the most part, elliptical and mysterious. De Los Santos Arias’s camera often withholds as much as it shows: faces are obscured; characters are positioned outside the frame; at times, the camera pans away from people to show, well, nothing in particular. De Los Santos Arias’s stylistic experimentation feels intuitive more than programmatic, and if the reasons behind the filmmaker’s choices are sometimes inscrutable, the sheer variety—and perversity—of his approach is never less than engrossing. Occasionally, de Los Santos Arias employs formalistic strategies borrowed from structuralist filmmakers like Michael Snow, most intriguingly in Cocote’s violent climax, which is filmed in part in a fluid, 360-degree pan that captures more of the ambiance of a room than the actions of the characters within it. It’s a shot that seems to show everything and nothing at the same time—and like so much of Cocote, it’s weirdly, inexplicably compelling.