All I knew going into Cenote - the first of MUBI's 2021 revivals from Rotterdam festivals past - was that its director Kaori Oda had numbered among the graduates of film.factory, the institution run by Béla Tarr in Sarajevo. Watching Cenote, it soon became apparent that what Tarr is to mud, Oda may be to water. The title of her film refers to a series of pools in northern Yucatan, Mexico, reportedly created by a meteor strike and subsequently utilised by Mayans as both a source of water and a site of sacrifice to the river gods; as some framing onscreen text has it, the pools were widely believed to be a portal between this world and the next. Oda's aim is to immerse us in this environment - literally so, the camera spending roughly 70% of these 75 minutes underwater - and to capture just what a trippy place this must be to inhabit for any particular length of time. Her raw material has been shaped into extended sequences that observe motes, fish and occasionally the bodies of other swimmers suspended in aqua, or the light shows that result whenever the sun and moon gods set their lumens to dancing across the water's surface or to penetrating its lower, less explored depths. Oda's own sound design, meanwhile, is working overtime to remind you of your local municipal swimming baths on a warm summer's day. The invitation is to dive in alongside the filmmaker, and then grab yourself a Twix for the journey home, or a suitably Mayan equivalent. Do Cadbury's still manufacture Aztec bars?
Oda deviates from her stern Hungarian mentor in one crucial respect. Tarr's ingrained pessimism is nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by an outward-bound, Ben Rivers-ish curiosity. The voices we hear on the soundtrack - some of which are intended to be received as Mayan spirits, bubbling up from the past - keep asking questions the images try to answer; and even when those images can't, they're clearly the result of a fascination with the silent world through which Oda's camera bobs and floats. Cenote is rich in natural wonders: rays of light that fan across the screen in abstract patterns, reflections dappling a riverbed, towers of mineral deposits left behind in what's said to be a dragon's cave. There's some watertreading: every time a school of fish appeared, I was reminded of those aquarium-based chillout tapes issued on VHS in the 1990s to soothe the anxious or overworked consumer. Yet the fascination these deep dives retain - backed up by the Yucatan locals, recalling various legends and tragedies - is that we're peering around a watery graveyard, a place where people (and, by all accounts, an alarming number of newborns) have been carried to their doom. When Oda finally alights upon a smattering of bones on the riverbed (human? animal?), a little forensic chill can be felt running down the spine. The dry-land footage, shot on a hypersaturated Super-8, has the look of artsy Gap-year video: with the notably grisly exception of a sequence in which we watch offal being prepared, Oda's openly sightseeing here. (A bit more Béla would be welcome above ground.) Whenever she snaps on a snorkel and gets below the surface, however, Cenote proves properly refreshing and transporting. The film itself becomes a portal; every ripple it observes could be a message - or a warning - sent to us by an earlier civilisation.
Cenote is available to stream from today via MUBI UK.