Manila-based Italian filmmaker Andrea Capranico chronicles a security guard's attempt to maintain order in a graveyard taken over by squatters.
The Manila-based Italian documentarian Andrea Capranico's first feature-length outing is about a wannabe chef working on a graveyard shift – literally. Set in a suburb in the Philippine capital, The Undertaker's protagonist is Ivan "Buddy" Garcia, an affluent young man who spends his mornings and afternoons perfecting his culinary skills – and then goes to work in the evenings as a security officer at a cemetery teeming with a decades-old squatter's community.
Just as Capranico's own background is – a chemistry master's degree followed by a spell in business consultancy before he reboots himself as a filmmaker – the contrasts in life trajectories shown in The Undertaker are striking. Ivan is shown thrilled by both making creamy roux at his state-of-the-art kitchen at home, and getting his hands dirty while walking his beat among the tombs; meanwhile, the have-nots have somehow retrofitted their impoverished lives by the availability of space in the land of the dead, as mausoleums become houses in which schoolboys do homework on tombstones while sounds of soap operas blast out from a TV nearby. Shot over three years with both conventional digital equipment and GoPro cameras, Capranico has managed to go really up-close to his subjects, as he follows Ivan around and explores the challenges he and his wards have to confront in the dark.
But The Undertaker doesn't shape up as a piece of cultural exotica hawking bizarre manifestations of poverty. Capranico lets his interviewees do the talking and walking, and never seek to judge the morality or logic defining their lives. In fact, the squatters actually are the human embodiment of persistence, dignity and normalcy, individuals who enjoy life (a volleyball match in the walkways between tombs; selling and snacking of barbecued intestines at stalls) and mourn death (the loss of relatives bludgeoned to death for having informed the security team of wrongdoings in the community) as much as anyone out there.
In fact, if there's someone on screen who's evidently under the influence of the Philippines' social malaise, it will be Ivan. Chubby, endearing and well-bred – his father is an accountant christened Jose Rizaliano in remembrance of the novelist who fought and died for the Philippines' nationalist cause – he's a lost soul steeped in naivete; as he speaks of his "moral obligation" of keeping the squatters safe in what he describes as a high-crime area, some of his wards described him as either a bourgeois boy seeking for some belonging – and he's not exacting fitting in well, given his fear of frogs in an amphibian-filled milieu – or an innocent kid being used by the more wayward elements among his co-workers.
The final part of the documentary illustrates this confusion best: after losing his job after his team is ousted from their positions after a municipal election, he weeps about his colleagues and secures jobs in his family business for some of them – with a final on-screen text underlining how he's still trying to make it big as a chef. The undertaker has returned to the light, but the gutter he left behind possibly remains the same: it's a message Capranico only gently hints at, but it's a subtlety which manages to show the class divide in Filipino society very well.