Only if the devil is generous will he let us out alive,” says 14-year-old Bolivian silver miner Basilio Vargas, the mournful subject of Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s somber, poignant documentary about kids who toil in the treacherous tunnels of Cerro Rico, known as “the mountain that eats men.” Aided by his brother Bernardino, 12, who wields a pick beside him, Basilio often spends up to 24 straight hours in the mine shaft, earning $4 a day for his family and school tuition. Like other ore-seekers, who fear cave-ins, errant dynamite sticks and silicosis (a lung-eating disease that’s helped claim the lives of an estimated 8 million indios since the 16th century), he prays to a Lucifer-like demon known as the Tio to ward off disaster.
Unblinking and unobtrusive witnesses, Davidson and Ladkani allow Basilio, an articulate youth hoping to improve his life through education, to narrate and explain the unusual syncretistic religious customs of his community. (One ritual involves attending Catholic mass and then bathing the mine entrance in llama blood.) Juxtaposing gorgeous shots of Cerro Rico’s vistas with its hellish underneath, the directors risked their lives to capture Basilio’s lamplit, claustrophobic gambols through the dust-choked holes where he labors, chomping on coca leaves to stanch fatigue and hunger. As a cinematic social document, The Devil’s Miner is flawless. As a portrait of childhood, it is, in the words of the boys’ foreman, “an incredible sadness.” (Opens Fri; Cinema Village.)—Damon Smith