According to its engineers, the second deck of Mexico City's Periférico Freeway can withstand a magnitude 8.5 earthquake. Its two elevated lanes stretch on for more than 10 miles and look like parallel concrete vertebrae. The structure was built between 2003 and 2006 on the backs of many, many men and some women, a handful of whom are the subjects of Juan Carlos Rulfo's documentary "In the Pit." It's an interesting, if dissatisfying rumination on the working people of industry -- how they labor, how they rest, what they think and feel.
The movie's humanist sensibility is immediately evident: The film follows its subjects on the clock and off, observing them do everything from wash their faces after work to race horses and get haircuts in their downtime. Below the deck a traffic director offers her religious explanation of the souls involved in such a laborious enterprise. Not accidentally, time-lapse footage of the construction of the pillars and arcs that suspend the road make the men installing reinforcing rods look like worker ants. Before the road is laid the pillars resemble three-fourths of a crucifix. Accordingly, Rulfo, who also operates the camera, asks the workers about God, and once in a while he gets a profound spiritual response.
"In the Pit" is an impressionistic crosshatch of lives and images meant to explain how an impressive physical structure got that way. In doing so, Rulfo imposes a sort of socialism onto this mixed batch of weary and energetic, hopeful and jaded people. They work to serve a higher physical purpose, and they work together. But the movie is torn between romanticizing the idealism of construction and capturing the reality of performing dangerous work.
The film has about four different styles that Rulfo cuts back and forth between. What we want -- maybe , given the number of people we meet, what we need -- is for the film to devote itself to fewer lives. (The runtime is only 84 minutes, which seems too long, yet insufficient). The intent, of course, is to show us how the work provides, for some, an adequate way of life. But it's also concerned with beatification. The film is full of arresting images and handsome angles, often from precipitous heights, and the images have been whipped into a non- chronological frenzy. The score swells from simple electronic notes to a lullaby's whimsy then to the noisy fury that made the more effective parts of Godfrey Reggio's "Qatsi " trilogy.
"In the Pit" doesn't have the force of Reggio's outrage or the scope of his wonder. But Rulfo is working on a smaller scale; too small, perhaps. The people he's interviewed and followed are rarely more than sad faces, expressed regrets, and fleeting vignettes. Ultimately, he's more interested in the construction itself. Tellingly, the film's most memorable shot is an aerial glide over the length of the deck. The workers are upstaged by their work. And the film is a tribute to impressive labor -- its own.