Eva Aridjis‘s “La Santa Muerte” takes in an observing eyeful of the growing cult surrounding Lady Death and how the lives and devotions of people loyal to Her play out in hard-knocked towns and prisons throughout Mexico.
As its centerpiece the film focuses on a small Santa Muerte shop that, after erecting a large glass-encased altar to the Skinny Girl, found itself as a pilgrimage site for people wanting to give thanks and praises to The Pretty One. The shrine, cared for with reverent detail by a devoted woman named Enriqueta Romero Romero, is located in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City. Known to be almost beyond dangerous, the ‘hood has within its tiny quarters some fifty gangs monitoring the activities therein.
Perfectly defined, the Holy Death is known as a benevolent saint, one who does not discriminate among Her devotees. As such, her list of disciples is long and battered including everyone from sex workers to transvestites to drug dealers and addicts. This willfulness to pardon the so-called criminal elements of society has brought a great deal of controversy to the otherwise peaceful practices of Muertians. For years, the cult was maligned as satanic by the country’s more formal Catholic population, and worshipers were forced to pray to Her graces in private. Ironically, devotees of La Santa Muerte also consider themselves to be Catholics, many asking God’s permission to worship before they begin to do so. Despite being demonized, however, the cult has in recent years come out of the closet, so to speak, and now worships more or less openly, no longer hiding its Little Lady pendants underneath T-shirts and blouses.
One of the most interesting enclaves of the newly normalized worship of the Holy Death is found in Mexican prisons, where it is believed some 40% of inmates formally honor Her. The film spends a fair amount of time interviewing incarcerated Muerte devotees, and it is within these dialogues where I found some of the most intriguing aspects of the tradition. In the prisons, guards and inmates alike honor the saint, where She adorns walls as paintings and end-of-hallway niches where Her statues are surrounded by candles lit in the hopes of gaining a victory over an adversary, be it human or ailment.
It is this deal-making relationship between devotee and La Santa Muerte that I found so interesting. The worshiping of saints is a unique practice and differs considerably from practices rooted in non-dualist traditions, where asking for a favor would seem almost paradoxical and absurd. If God is All, God is you, than why would you need to ask for a favor from you? Speaking to a saint is something very different. Speaking to a saint means speaking to an Other, and it is the relationship a person has to an Other that allows there to be a spark—stone against stone, as it were—where a projected self outside of one’s self can act as a listener, mirror, healer, or mother as the case need be.
In Aridjis’ “La Santa Muerte” we meet all of these beneficiaries with a comfortable neutrality. Narrated with a respectful understatement by Gael García Bernal, the film acts more as a lamp than a spotlight. The characters speak for themselves in their native tongue, and the footage is arranged just this side of linear narrative. We get the sights, sounds, and smells, but without the commentary and projected deductions. A welcomed approach to a subject dying to be over-exoticized by the spiritually inclined just north of the border.