Death and Magic




THERE’S A MAGIC TRICK toward the end of Darío Guerrero’s 2018 film, Rocío, which documents the death of the filmmaker’s mother, Rocío Meneses Díaz. A magician at a Halloween party makes a few small toys disappear, then reappear in a child’s hand. The scene is a flashback — one of many, all clips from Guerrero’s childhood home movies. The trick ushers in footage of Rocío’s final days, pairing life’s mysteries with death’s realities.

It is rare to encounter such an unyielding portrait of dying in film. Many depictions — when not sensationally violent — can seem cursory or mawkish. But Rocío doesn’t flinch. The film bears witness to the excruciating course of an incurable illness, the cancer steadily killing its subject. Guerrero walks us through the intensely private discussions the family must have about wills, cremation, where Rocío’s ashes should rest, and whether she would prefer to die at home in the United States or in her birth country of Mexico. Rocío herself is warm, funny, fiercely perceptive. It is difficult not to fall in love with her, and it is shattering to watch her fade away. Still, the film manages to revel in wonder, revealing death as a process not just wrenching but also magical.

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Death is a topic often skirted in this country, as if denying it is akin to defying it. In the United States, we pay enormous economic and emotional costs for our reticence to speak openly about dying, from a majority of Americans not having their end-of-life plans in place to individuals being forced to face their gravest fears in silence and isolation.

Such ardent disavowals are historically and globally atypical. In A Brief History of Death (2014), W. M. Spellman traces how dying has been a central preoccupation of human civilization. Since at least the eighth millennium BCE, when the inhabitants of central Turkey’s agricultural settlement Çatalhöyük buried the dead beneath their living spaces, we have kept death close to us. By the end of the 19th century, when births and deaths both took place in the home, Americans were far more familiar with many aspects of dying than we are now. Before it became largely confined to hospitals and hospices, death was more like the event in Guerrero’s film: openly discussed and communally shared, its magic celebrated.

Rocío’s magic is not naïve. It is a tool of reflection and engagement. Some scholars have advocated that magical perspectives be taken seriously within professional practice. A nascent field of social research, these inquiries attempt to define what magic actually is. In his 2008 book, The Sorcerer’s Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England, Alec Ryrie argues that magic occupies the ambiguous spaces that science and religion tend to avoid. It conjures the “inexplicable,” the things that happen before our eyes but that we don’t (yet) understand.

Rocío seems to share Ryrie’s view. Sitting in the family room, her back turned to her son, Rocío cautions Darío to be careful with the knife he just dropped on the kitchen floor. “How did you know it was a knife?” he asks. “Because I’m your mother,” she says. “That’s mother’s intuition.” The film captures such everyday enchantment, including unorthodox therapies, the magical touches of loved ones and caregivers, and the uplifting landscapes of familial homes and ancestral homelands.

Magic disrupts. Where conventional wisdom advises us to suppress matters that defy rational thought, a language of magic uniquely illuminates the ineffable processes of trauma and grief. By embracing the eccentric or implausible, magic suspends invidious value judgments, providing a compassionate approach to subjective differences.

Magic is also agnostic. It celebrates ambiguity and acknowledges that we don’t have all the answers. Today, skepticism is often embraced as intellectually sophisticated. But, as Ryrie notes, during the Renaissance — when new continents were being discovered and the Earth was suddenly thought to revolve around the Sun — cynics were scorned. “[W]hen you have adopted a new mathematics, a new astronomy, a new geography and a new religion,” he writes, “why balk at a new magic?”

Magic continues to pick up the slack in areas where reason and faith fall short — deficiencies of which Rocío persistently reminds us. Guerrero’s father, debating whether to go to church to pray for his wife, laments, “You’re supposed to ask some pendejo for help. It’s all bullshit.” Later, while speaking to Darío, his grandfather tells him, “The Earth is round. There’s no arguing that.” “What keeps the water from falling?” Darío asks. “That’s it,” affirms his grandfather. “What mystery keeps all the water in place?” That a scientific answer exists is irrelevant. Outside the house where Rocío is dying, wondering what holds everything together is contemplation enough.

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A central theme of Rocío is that impermanence is, paradoxically, the only reality we can trust. Change is a constant to which we are forced to acquiesce. Dreaming, waking, breathing, becoming. Death, Rocío illustrates, is just one more transition in a series. Death — a transformation that breaches our reality — displays magic’s most elemental character. The death of a loved one can appear almost like a kind of tragic trick. Something permanent has been lost, violating the world as it should be.

We have established mechanisms to protect us from the shock of death, sequestering it within certain rituals and institutions. But Rocío reveals the illusory nature of these supposed safeguards and the limits of our capacity for compartmentalization. This becomes particularly apparent in the way Guerrero manipulates narrative time. The film’s seamless slippage between past and present makes it easy to lose your bearings. But there are also times when the cuts can seem quite jarring. The film’s flashbacks work the way our memories do: suddenly prompted by the emotions of the moment.

Guerrero is an especially adept editor. Disparate as they may seem, the clips he chooses connect precisely, each preparing the essential truth of the next. Nestled between footage of a fading Rocío is a video of young Darío playing in the family’s backyard. “The rose has withered,” his father says while filming flowers along the fence. Memory, time, and place are not neatly partitioned but in constant, messy relation with one another. This scene reminds us that the line separating us from death is as thin as the line distinguishing our memories from our present realities.

The film also highlights the role administrative systems play in the regulation of our daily lives. Two social systems emerge as central: immigration and health care. While making the film, Guerrero himself had a harrowing experience with immigration authorities. An undergraduate at Harvard, he traveled to Mexico to be with his mother during her treatment but was uncertain — despite being a DACA recipient — whether he would be allowed to return to the United States. The story made national headlines when he was eventually granted temporary humanitarian parole, allowing him to fulfill his mother’s final wishes: to carry her ashes to the family’s home in Los Angeles and then complete his degree.

As for the health-care system, Guerrero documents what happens when we come face to face with the limits of our medical knowledge. When Darío tells his mother that she defied the odds, surpassing the “matter of weeks” the experts gave her, she responds, “Those bastards. Now I’m not leaving.” She refuses to succumb, and Guerrero makes a point of showing us the downside of hope. Rocío drinks countless health smoothies and swallows Chinese weevils like pills. “First one to vomit loses,” she laughs. Finally, she enters treatment at a holistic center in Tijuana, where she submits to chelation therapy, a flavorless diet, and hyperthermia sessions. She can barely eat. There are ants everywhere and spiders on the walls. “Maybe if you vacuumed this place there would be less bugs,” Rocío says. “We don’t have a vacuum,” the nurse replies. When Rocío expresses doubt, her husband takes his frustrations out on her. These moments are some of the most painful to watch. In the film’s final scenes, when she is too weak to respond, he apologizes: “Forgive me for everything I couldn’t do.”

The treatment center directs our attention less to the futility of alternative medicine than to the fictitious nature of every promise of salvation. The film examines the immaterial distinctions between prayer, magic, and experimental treatments, the elusive border between future and past, and the imagined margins that separate cultures. In the face of death, such divisions only grow in absurdity. The film suggests an alternative to our death anxieties: if the structural features of our physical and political worlds are contrived, then maybe, like magicians, we can bend time and space to our will, empowering ourselves far beyond our fragile bodies and transient systems.

Rocío opens with a passage from a poem by Nezahualcóyotl, a 15th-century Acolhuan philosopher: “Is it true that we only exist on the earth? Not forever on earth but only for an instant?” If the film is to be seen as a response to this question, it would seem that the answer is “no.” Who is to say we can’t reorganize the chronology of our lives as we see fit, living as if past, present, and future run forever alongside each other? This is what cinematic flashbacks always offer — an alternative construction of time, in which people never age, death is suspended, and return is possible. It is — as hope, magic, and curiosity have always been — an attempt to bend the rules as we know them.

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Played over footage of Rocío’s funeral procession is a toast from her quinceañera: “Rocío, wherever you go, near, far, and in between […] from this point on, all the joy that exists in the universe will fall upon you.” Just as we might see the twinkle of a star that has long since faded, Rocío’s light has not dimmed. There is a place where Earth has yet to be, where you and I have not been born, where our loved ones are still alive.

In Rocío, magic references our collective capacity to insist on confidence over doubt, determination over vacillation, optimism over pessimism. Such emotional fortitude is what drives humankind to innovate, create, and discover. Chemistry, physics, astronomy, medicine — each was once upon a time ridiculed as “magic.” If — as Ryrie observes — magic, science, and religion are long-lost siblings, then perhaps we could take magic’s sisterly advice “that incredulity and credulity can sometimes be just as stupid as each other.”

Before the final credits roll, we are shown a home video of Guerrero’s parents, newly married. “The enchantment has worn off,” Darío’s father jokes. Hearing these words after Rocío has passed seems a heartrending nod to hope’s end. But we can also hear them as originally intended, in jest. The honeymoon is not over. This family is forever enchanted.

Darío used to sit in his mother’s lap. In the film, she lies in his. “It’s the same,” his father says. From generation to generation, we carry the dead. There is nothing more powerful than feeling our loved ones in our bones, in every word and action, long after they’ve gone, not as faint remnants but as substantive continuations. Rather than half-dying in grief, we become a testament to those we’ve lost. Rocío reveals life’s most exquisite, magical charge: to embody the transcendent by living for our dead.

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Meghan Gilbride writes about art and culture. More information can be found at her website.


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