Cenotes are natural sinkholes found in various parts of the world, but they are especially common on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where there are nearly 6,000. Serving for centuries as a source of freshwater to the local Mayan population, they are also a wellspring of legends and were once sites of ritual human sacrifice.

Starting in 2017, filmmaker Kaori Oda made three trips to cenotes in the Yucatan, filming and meeting the people who live there. The resulting film, “Cenote,” which had its international premiere at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, is labeled a documentary, but is more of a poetic meditation on the mythic and ritual role of cenotes in Mayan life, going back into prehistory.

The first recipient of the Oshima Prize for talented young filmmakers in Japan, Oda has spent much of her career outside the country, including participation in the Sarajevo-based Film Factory (stylized as film.factory) training program designed by Hungarian director Bela Tarr. And “Cenote,” which explores the borders between imagination and reality, nature and humanity, life and death, is about as culturally borderless as a film can be.

Cenote (Senote)
Run Time 75 min.
Language Spanish, Mayan
Opens Sept. 19

Opening captions explain that cenotes were used as ritual spaces, including “human sacrifices for the rain god Chaac,” and served as “connections between the present life and the hereafter,” but the film soon departs from this standard educational documentary format. Using little more than a smartphone and a Super 8 camera — the latter an analog technology beloved by generations of independent filmmakers — Oda presents a phantasmagorical collage of the cenotes and the people who live around them.

The technical level is often like that of a home movie circa 1965 (the year the Super 8 was first introduced), but the blurry surface light and greenish underwater tints serve to enhance the mystery of the cenotes, as does the camerawork, which prioritizes the intimate over the objective. So we get many close-ups of stoic or smiling local faces and spooky light beams passing through murky water but few of the wide shots tourists like to take with their phones.

Minutes into the film, I began to think “Cenote” might work better as a short — or an art installation — than a 75-minute feature. But there’s something hypnotic about the procession of swirling, glittering images, and haunting about the narration, which is drawn from Mayan poetry and delivered by otherworldly voices. I found myself on a journey into a world that is ancient, but also somehow of the here and now — where fish swim calmly above old bones covered in green slime, where sounds of underwater breathing alternate with ancient incantations. (“We want to go back to where we were born,” says one of the narrators.)

There are also stories about people drowning or disappearing into the cenotes, never to be seen again. True, some cenotes are like bottomless voids while others open to vast underground cave systems, but these dead are not only poor swimmers and lost divers. The film implies something darker and more mysterious is going on, splicing in footage from locals dancing at festivals where skull imagery is prominent. The past is present, it whispers, and just as in the old days, the cenotes claim their victims and their gods rule on.

“We remember all we saw and heard,” the narrator says. “Nothing is forgotten.” Certainly not the ensorcelling beauty and terror of “Cenote.”

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