Devil Never Sleeps: Lourdes Portillo’s Docu

(El Diablo Nunca Duerme)

Sundance Film Fest–The fictionalized documentary The Devil Never Sleeps concerns the journey of Chicana filmmaker Lourdes Portillo back to Mexico to investigate the mysterious death of her uncle.

Graced with a healthy dosage of humor and some introspective commentary, pic attempts to be both deeply personal and also revelatory of Mexico’s family mores, but ultimately its limited scope and crude execution will restrict its appeal to audiences interested in the docu genre.

All Portillo knows when she begins her investigation is the “official story,” i.e. that her uncle Oscar committed suicide. His widow (and second wife), whom the family never liked or accepted, suspecting that she married Oscar for his wealth and status, claims that he took his life because he was ridden with cancer.

However, everyone suspects there’s more to the case, which prompts the filmmaker to examine police reports and press coverage of his death. In the process, a portrait of a successful, affluent entrepreneur, who was also a mayor and celebrity, is constructed, with hints suggesting that a lot of people owed him money and that he had problems with his second wife and adopted children (with his first wife).

The docu’s most intriguing dimension is its illustration of the philosophical notion that human reality is subjectively perceived and constructed (it’s a variant on Pirandello’s classic, “Six Characters in Search of an Author”). Indeed, despite the fact that Lourdes uses various methods to unravel the conundrum–personal interviews, police reports, background surveys, family gossip–at the end of her inquiry, she’s only slightly more informed than she had been at the start. Some interesting cultural variation between American and Mexican society and their respective family institutions emerges during the interviews.

But lacking depth, docu suffers from the director’s exercise of restraint and detachment, when more intimate commentary is called for. One needs to know more about Lourdes’ specific feelings toward her uncle and family, and about her still unresolved emotions due to her emigration to the U.S. as a teenager.

It doesn’t help that visually the film is shapeless, consisting of a series of talking heads, and that its tech credits are on the raw side, which is probably a budgetary function.

Still, The Devil Never Sleeps is mildly entertaining, particularly in the sections that try to make sense of the radically contradictory accounts–about the same events or issues–given by different members of Oscar’s family.