Straight Into Darkness

(Yeah, I'm listening to Tom Petty while I write this, but it seems to fit this film).

There is a wonderfully poignant moment in Studs Terkel's Working when a construction worker says that he wishes they would put the names of guys like him on the buildings they worked on. Then, he explains, he could show it to his son someday and say, "See, I built this." (The musical version of the show turns this moment into a powerfully resonating climax, thanks in no small part to the music and lyrics of the painfully underrated Craig Carnelia.) Someone must have been listening, because there is a large plaque in the lobby of the Citicorp Center that lists the names of all the men and women who worked on the building. Whenever I see that list of names, it moves me as much as the display on the Vietnam War Memorial.

It is impossible not to think of that plaque while watching Into the Pit, a new documentary by Juan Carlos Rulfo. Rulfo, whose father Juan Rulfo was one of Mexico's greatest 20th-century novelists, took a film crew to the middle of Mexico City where construction workers are building a huge superhighway, called the Second Deck, that soars above the poverty of the Mexican capital. He follows a handful of the men (and one woman) who work in the sky above the city and in the mud below it as they complete one small portion of this massively ambitious project, which stretches for over ten miles across the city.

On the simplest level, In the Pit is a movie for every boy (or girl) who ever had an erector set. Just watching the laborious process by which anything is accomplished on the work site is breathtaking and fascinating. By the middle of this all-too-brief film (84 minutes), one has a new appreciation for the sheer "thingness" of a city's infrastructure and, needless to say, for the ordinary people who build and staff it.

Rulfo is more interested, though, in the interplay of the men and their attitude towards the project that is disrupting the lives of millions of working-class residents of the city. There is the usual horseplay and macho prankishness that one finds in an all-male workplace. And there is certainly an expected level of blunt talk. As one of the high-steel guys says of the dangers of his work, "We're more scared of not having anything to eat on Saturday." But in the main these men view their world with a strangely good-natured resignation, accepting things as they are, acknowledging the unfairness of it all but expecting nothing better. The one person who seems to yearn for something more is the only woman, a night-shift security guard with a firm religious faith to bolster her.

One wants to get closer to these men but, regrettably, In the Pit is too brief for that. As a result, the film is on safest ground when it just sits back and lets us watch the nuts-and-bolts work. Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is the hugely inventive musical score, created from the sounds of the actual work by Leonardo Heiblum, which gives a wonderfully concrete (no pun intended) quality to whole project.

The film ends with its most exhilarating moment, a long, long soaring helicopter shot of the entire highway, still under construction, that is a vivid reminder of how small a part of the entire puzzle we have been watching (sort of like the stunning pullback shot at the end of Don Siegal's Hell Is for Heroes, when we suddenly realize that all the lives we have seen destroyed were the cost for an advance that amounts to a few hundred feet of ground).

Early in the film one of the workmen says to Rulfo, "You break your back, and who gets the glory?" In the Pit is the plaque that these workers deserve and won't get, their little piece of the glory. It opened today and is playing at the Cinema Village in Manhattan.