Combining documentary, fiction and elaborate soundscapes into a uniquely experimental whole, the Spanish filmmaker Carlos Casas opens his latest film, “Cemetery,” with an on-screen description of the myth of the elephant graveyard, a trove of ivory long sought by poachers.
After killing all but one elephant, the legend goes, poachers braved jungle and rivers, mountains and ravines, to follow this survivor to his final resting place. Using this tale as his template, Casas drops us into the Sri Lankan jungle to accompany the elephant and his mahout on their perilous journey.
Divided into four chapters and unfolding with minimal dialogue, “Cemetery” is primarily a slow and lovingly detailed immersion in the sights and sounds of the jungle and the mahout’s devoted attention to his animal. Melding myriad trills, screeches, and roars, Chris Watson’s mesmerizing sound design (he regularly works with David Attenborough) joins Benjamín Echazarreta’s lush imagery to create a soothing, almost somnolent sensory blanket. A silvery spider’s web, dangling in foliage like a safety net for falling leaves or acrobatic bugs, is as absorbing as the close-ups of the enormous beast itself — majestic reminders of its prehistoric ancestry.
As the poachers close in, the movie shifts gears and, in a nod to early adventure stories (Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs are among those thanked in the credits), barrels toward its fantastical conclusion. Shot in the Atacama Desert in Chile, this ending — with its inky pauses and allusive, speeding gray shapes — suffers most from the extreme limitations of home viewing. The result is a maddeningly obscured finale to a movie that’s both a hymn to tradition and a lament for ongoing species destruction.
Not rated. In Sinhalese and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. Watch on Mubi.
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