Somewhere inside the mess that is “Curandero”, the original screenplay for which was written by Robert Rodriguez a full eight years before the film actually went into production at Miramax with unrelated first-time feature director and former editor Eduardo Rodriguez at the helm, there’s a potentially interesting genre mash-up struggling to be seen: essentially, Rodriguez takes a similar plot to that of Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 occult potboiler “The Devil Rides Out”, and relocates it to present day Mexico City, where powerful drug cartels command respect on the streets and challenge the rule of law every day because of the endemic corruption their activities spread throughout every level of society. Rodriguez simply takes a very familiar crime movie plotline from this gritty milieu, in which the heroes have to track down a powerful drugs baron who has connections seemingly everywhere, and highlights its compatibility with the basic Wheatley formula established by the English author in his series of occult adventure thrillers; shoving them together in what surely could have been made an entertaining and original premise if only a little more polish and thought had been applied to the script in the first place, and a good deal more experience had been evident behind the camera in what is a frustratingly hit-and-miss affair that fails to capture the imagination as successfully as it should have.
The fact that the screenplay was hanging about for so long before it eventually got made might not necessarily have been such a bad sign, although it does encourage the suspicion that the Weinsteins simply threw it into production as a low risk investment, with an unknown director and a tiny budget, as a means of capitalising on the stock Robert Rodriguez’s name had accumulated in the years since “Desperado” and “From Dusk Till Dawn”, and after the release of “Sin City”. That it was made back in 2005 and only now finds its way onto DVD from Lionsgate after failing to find theatrical distribution for nearly a decade in the wake of its initial festival run surly doesn’t bode well, though. Sure enough, “Curandero” emerges as a bit of a muddle from start to finish and never really succeeds in making its outlandish world -- in which occult rituals, exorcism and astral projection live comfortably side-by-side with drug wars, police corruption and gangster/cop shoot outs in dingy backstreets – ever feel like a believable one.
Carlos Gallardo, a mainstay of Robert Rodriguez’s cinema since his “El mariachi” debut, plays Carlos Gutiérrez --a faith healer (or Curandero) livening in a small, poverty-stricken Mexican village. It’s a position he’s inherited from the long deceased father who once shared his name, but not a profession he himself takes at all seriously. He believes the spells and spiritual purification rituals he’s called on to perform for the benefit of impoverished but believing locals, work merely on a psychological basis rather than an occult one. When he is paid a visit by a Detective Magdalena Garcia (Gizeht Galatea) -- who’s actually come looking for help from the father, unaware that the elder Gutiérrez is dead -- she asks Carlos to come to Mexico City and help out at the central police station, where her colleagues are now too scared to even enter their own headquarters. They believe it to have been cursed by the Palo Mayombe-practising leader of a satanic drug trafficking cult who goes by the name of Castañeda (Gabriel Pingarrón), and who was held there for a short time having been implicated in the ritualistic deaths of eighty-six people, only to escape the next day through unknown occult means, leaving his interrogator dead and horribly mutilated and his cell marked by an evil charm called a Nganga: a territory-marking occult object made from the blood, bones and body parts of his unfortunate victim. Basically, the whole complex now needs purifying by a powerful Curandero, and because Carlos’ father once healed her of a mysterious psychic malaise and saved her life when she was a little girl, Magdalena has come looking for his help once more, but has to make do with his unbelieving son instead.
This becomes a fairly pedestrian ‘journey of self-discovery’ plot centred on the rather bland figure of Carlos, then, in which the young apprentice mystic is gradually and reluctantly drawn into a series of occult happenings because of his deepening association with Detective Garcia, whose speciality is the investigation of ritualistic crime and satanic worship. As the two follow a series of clues, which allow the plot to develop in the manner of a traditional police procedural while also bringing in mystical elements at every stage of the proceedings (they consult a shamanic follower of Mithra [Ernesto Yáñez] at one point, who hangs out with his two guards in a graveyard like some living form of graveside statuary!), the conflicted healer begins to experience phenomena which show him that not only is the powerful black magic of Castañeda a reality, but that he himself also possesses a special psychic gift which puts him in touch with both the angelic and the demonic qualities that co-exist in the souls of each and every person. On the trail of the elusive Castañeda, the couple pursue a series of leads that result in the discovery of gruesome ritualistic murders and bring them to the gates of a rich mansion-dwelling drug lord with a private army of machine-gun toting goons at his disposal, who is also somehow involved with the satanic leader and his cult of cannibalistic followers.
As an antagonist Castañeda is clearly a mixture of various recognisable personalities both real and fictional. Apparently taking his name from Peruvian mystic Carlos Castañeda and his persona from the villain Mocata out of Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out”, while acquiring his appearance from the real life English occultist who inspired that character, Alistair Crowley, actor Gabriel Pingarrón certainly does a fine job of mimicking the gimlet-eyed, bald-headed look of Crowley’s famous shaven headed and staring eyed portrait of 1912. The film is at its strongest when his dominating fur-coated presence is on screen, invading Carlos’ consciousness on the astral plane to torment his foe with the revelation that the fates of the two are intimately conjoined by an association between Castañeda and Carlos’ father, and confounding the obese Mexican drug lord Blascoe (René Campero) by walking completely unharmed through the hail of bullets issuing from the weapons of Blascoe’s army of pink-shirted heavies, who then suddenly wake from a hypnotic spell to realise that they’ve in reality been firing at each other the whole time.
The film also delivers kinetically shot, gritty-looking shoot-outs between armed drug traffickers and cops, which suddenly turn uncanny and become tinged with the supernatural when Carlos experiences his psychic visions and bizarre apparitions in the middle of them -- such as a black-skinned red-eyed giant, sent as a spectral visitation to warn the young man off, or the cloven-hoofed goat demon who’s conjured near the climax of the movie, and which becomes the main focus of Castañeda’s diabolical plot. The concept of an occultist using drug trafficking to finance his operations in a contemporary context and the mix of genres this potentially allows for, intuitively feels like an intriguing idea that could’ve made for an exotic and interesting thriller, rooted in the conventions of Alan Parker’s “Angel Heart” for instance, because of the investigative detection angle -- yet “Curandero” never grabs the attention or even develops much atmosphere, despite trying much too hard to do so at times with several over-the-top stylistic flourishes that detract more than they were intended to add.
Eduardo Rodriguez’s directorial style is frankly all over the place, and despite a preference for Kubrick-like symmetrical compositions, the material is often poorly and confusingly realised and is much too reliant on that annoying hyper-fast, jumpy modern editing technique that is supposed to indicate ‘edgy’ to the viewer but instead merely suggests a filmmaker lazily trying to ramp up excitement where not much truly exists. By far the worst directorial decision, though, involves the actual look of the HD video-shot cinematography, which utilises a bumped up contrast that is so horribly over-saturated and ‘hot’ that seemingly all the lit areas of the screen are completely bleached of any visual detail at all. This, in combination with the putrid, murky brown digitally graded colour timing of the film (which is probably supposed to make it look ‘gritty’), means the shaded regions of the screen are plunged into utter darkness while all remaining colour is drained from the rest of the picture. It looks completely unnatural and was intended, according to the director (who talks about it on the commentary track) to indicate that Carlos is subjectively living in hell the whole time, and is emerging into self-knowledge as the movie progresses with him uncovering the truth about himself as part of his attempt to track down Castañeda and find out what the occultist is planning. In fact, it is often just annoying to look at, and this artificial tampering with the look of the film makes it far too ‘comic book’ in appearance when what we could have done with instead was an attempt to make the outlandish occult aspects of the plot feel more organic and grounded in the culture of the city in which these events are supposed to be taking place. There is very little sense of place at all here, and both Carlos and Magdalena are severely underwritten characters whose respective ‘journeys’ never feel particularly interesting (in Carlos’ case) or believable (in Magdalena’s). The supposedly game-changing developments of the final half hour feels so well telegraphed that one is left wondering why the purportedly psychically gifted Carlos didn’t see it coming a mile off, and a scene involving some exploding eggs in a hotel room becomes unintentionally comical thanks to some eccentric and over-enthusiastic editing.
“Curandero” contains the germ of a good idea at its core but it is severely underwritten and badly executed, and one can well see why it languished so long in distribution limbo. The DVD release from Lionsgate features the choice of the original Spanish audio track with English subtitles or an English dubbed track which is about as good as these things can be (not very). The only extra is the commentary by director Eduardo Rodriguez and director of photography Jaime Reynoso, who talk a lot about the aesthetics of the film and how they had to fight to persuade Robert Rodriguez to let them shoot it with the photographic look they originally conceived during their planning. They seem happy with it, but it seriously distracts from the story’s objectives.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!