The Devil's Miner | Small Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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The Devil's Miner 

If we think of hell as a literal place, we likely conjure up a horrible domain underground: dark and ugly, marked by extreme temperatures and unpleasant air, unfathomably deep and forlorn. Those places really do exist, such as the half-abandoned silver mines of Cerro Rico, high in the Bolivian mountains, that are the setting for Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani's documentary, now available on video.

Cerro Rico is a place of perverse beauty -- a barren, foreboding mountain, often enshrouded in mist or dust -- that looms over the ramshackle town of Potosi. The filmmakers artfully capture both heartbreaking sweeping vistas that suggest a world beyond the mines (however unattainable), and the cramped, primitively constructed tunnels where the miners toil. Eight million workers, primarily the indigenous Indios, are rumored to have died in the mines, earning the peak the sobriquet "the mountain that eats men."

Two of the workers potentially on the mountain's menu are the primary focus of the film, 14-year-old Basilio Vargas and his 12-year-old brother Bernardino. These mineritos -- little miners -- literally live at the mine, in a stone hut that abuts the entrance. When not working double shifts of 24 hours underground, they struggle to attend school. The filmmakers allow the boys to tell their own story, and their matter-of-fact soliloquies are eloquent and moving. Theirs is a wretched life that has yet to claim their humanity or childish hopes, even as the mine work leaves them frightened and regretful.

The film's title isn't just a casual reference to the hellish quality of this work. A cross marks the entrance of the mines, but the miners believe that the benevolence of God cannot reach into the mine's endless catacombs. Instead, deep inside each mine are centuries-old effigies of the devil -- El Tio -- to whom the miners make gifts and even blood sacrifices, hoping to win his beneficence. Even the local Catholic Church concedes the domain of the mines to the devil.

Young Basilio and his brother, though fearful, dutifully prostrate themselves before El Tio, offering coca leaves (which all the miners chew to boost energy). It's shocking that someone as pure-hearted, noble and intelligent as Basilio believes that only the devil can save him from this life of misery. Sadly, time will teach Basilio a tough lesson: The devil helps no one but himself.

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