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Dark Skull

Locarno in L.A. Review

Independent; 80 minutes

Director: Kiro Russo

Written by on April 24, 2017 

Independent films about inveterate fuckups are nearly pervasive enough to count as some sort of disease, but Dark Skull is less concerned with presenting its viewers with a fuckup than it is with putting them inside one’s head. Or, to better convey what it’s like to watch, this movie crams the audience inside that space until the claustrophobia is overpowering and they can practically smell sour alcohol breath. Co-writer/director Kiro Russo’s first feature demonstrates chilling formal assurance.


The fuckup in question is Elder Mamani (Julio Cesar Ticona), whose godfather pulls some strings to nab him his recently deceased father’s job in the Huanuni tin mine. Bolivia has a long, proud mining tradition, but joining it does absolutely nothing to better Elder, who is never not some combination of drunk, slacking off, or stirring shit. Causing accidents and ignoring his pleading family members, Elder is content to piss on this difficult, embattled profession – literally at one point.

An intersection of work and life is a popular vector for character study in cinema, but Dark Skull’s version of the idea perverts it. Instead of his work either expressing who he is or motivating him to change who he is, Elder entering the mines only makes his externalities match his personality. The miners, and the film, spend long periods of time in tunnels, and even when it ventures aboveground, it’s only at night. It’s like a classical tale of the underworld – the work represents the true path forward, and woe betide those who stray from it. Elder strays almost immediately, and thus does the mine become his hell, a labyrinth of damp cold without any apparent exit. In one sequence, we see the mining process, and the detailed soundscape of the machinery and action and montage of flowing water and minerals makes it clear that this motion is the only life down here.


Russo and his frequent cinematographer collaborator Pablo Paniagua make the camera float through the various environs. Characters speak directly to unseen parties as it moves by, away from, or toward them, a terrific trick to make the viewer feel like they’re being lectured or spoken about in passing. That’s Elder’s existence: drifting sullenly through life while being harangued for his failures. For his part, he speaks little, with Ticona exhibiting a stumbling full-body slur of motion. The stark whites of industrial lights usually illuminate only part of any given scene we see, less a dreamlike effect than a substance-induced fugue. Dark Skull is a vivid, disjointed freefall, and it haunts you like the most unsettling hangover.

Dark Skull screened at Locarno in Los Angeles.


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