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Silvestre Pantaleón 2011


Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Jonathan D. Amith
Directed by Roberto Olivares Ruiz and Jonathan D. Amith
DVD , color, 65 min., In Náhuatl with English, French, Náhuatl, and Spanish subtitles

Sr. High - General Adult
Aging, Anthropology, Art, Latin American Studies, Native American Studies

Date Entered: 03/22/2013

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

Silvestre Pantaleón is an ethnographic film about an elderly artisan. It begins with a quote from the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho: “All along this road / not a single soul—only / autumn evening comes.” An old soul is the eponymous subject of the film. Silvestre Pantaleón Esteva is “pushing 81.” He suffers from joint pain and numbness and needs a “soul-raising” ceremony from the local healer (curandero). The setting of the documentary is the small Náhua village of San Agustin Oapan, in the State of Guerrero, Mexico. Establishing shots show the village’s location near the Balsas River, with a massive highway bridge to Acapulco in the distance.

Silvestre’s subsistence-level livelihood as a fiber artist depends upon his continued physical health. He is a rope-maker and his specialty is tumplines, the ropes used to carry heavy loads, such as water jugs. In order to pay the curandero for the healing rituals, Silvestre plans to make the rope to be used in the upcoming village festivities honoring Saint Michael. But his age-related physical infirmities prevent him from foraging for the plant leaves needed to make the rope. His family--daughter, son-in-law, and nephew—climb the steep slopes of the river valley to gather leaves of the maguey (agave) plant. The multi-step process of rope-making is documented. The leaves are cut and bundled. They soak in the river for nine days, and then the fiber is cleaned and spun. The rope is braided, trimmed, and dyed, finally ready to carry the Saint Michael Archangel.

The women of Silvestre’s family are also accomplished artisans, as shown in the domestic scenes filmed in their open-air kitchen and patio. Silvestre’s wife, Rutilia Barrera Camilo, and daughter Paula grind maize, make tortillas, and create and paint pottery. They also help Silvestre with several parts of the rope-making process. Many days of hard work result in rope that is sold to pay for the healing ceremonies. The film documents the multiple rituals performed by the curandero; his invocations are an admixture of indigenous and Christian traditions. Silvestre reports that he has three days of pain-free life after the soul-raising rites. But when the pain returns, he is philosophical. He quotes his ancestors’ adage, “we are seasoned well beyond maturity.” Forever the hardworking fiber artisan, he says, “I can’t stop working the fiber; it’s my calling.”

The film is not narrated. Traditional violin music punctuates the unobtrusive recordings of the family’s dialogue, the curandero’s invocations, and Silvestre’s philosophical musings. The cinematography is exquisite. The film is a profound and meditative ethnography on the life, livelihood, and artisanship of a patriarch and his family. It is recommended for anthropology, art, gerontology, and Latin American and Native American Studies courses.