Oct 10, 2010
To commemorate 100 years of the Mexican Revolution, young Mexican filmmakers were given a budget and total artistic freedom and asked to deliver ten 10 minute short films on the topic. The results are a mixed bag, and the collection is interesting, as much for its failings as for its successes. I'm reviewing them here in order of personal preference.
My favorite short was the first one, La Bienvenida, by Fernando Eimbcke. To me, this beautiful black and white movie is like Mexico in a nutshell, with a nod to Juan Rulfo. A combination of progress and stasis, of modernity and tradition, and more than anything, of enormous promise that fails to materialize (which is what happens in general with this collection of shorts). I knew the short was by Eimbcke a minute into it: a restrained camera, beautiful shots, and a sweet, evenhanded and refreshing lack of histrionics, which is what I most hope for when watching Mexican movies. Someone who doesn't smother everything with sentimentality. My only nitpick is that it relies too much on fades to black. A municipal band in a small town in the boonies is rehearsing for a concert. The young tuba player is out of it. He is chastised and asked to get his act together before the concert tomorrow. This man has a tuba but no running water. His life is hard, but he rehearses. Big day comes, tuba player is ready, so is the orchestra, made of poor people that nevertheless attack the Don Giovanni overture with heart. The conductor gives a typically overly flowery speech and the band waits for whatever important dignitaries to pass through that dusty, unpaved, forgotten corner of Mexico. The orchestra is ready, but they never come.
My second favorite short was Rodrigo Plá's 30-30, a spot-on short about the grandson of Pancho Villa, who is asked by the municipal president of a small town to be the guest of honor in the Revolution Day celebrations. The man has prepared a small speech that he wants to run through the mayor, but the functionary doesn't want to hear it. He tells him that in Mexico of today he can speak his mind. The festivities are garish, complete with cardboard cutouts of Villa and Zapata, and a Miss Soldadera contest, but Pancho Villa's grandson's speech is never allowed to happen. Plá uses stills to convey all the devalued acts of commemoration this dignified man is dragged to by government officials because there is not enough time in the world, let alone the span of a short film, to represent the tsunami of demagoguery that the Mexican government (regardless of which party is in power) is capable of. 30-30 (the name comes from a carbine used in the revolution, but I venture to interpret that it may also be a play on hindsight, like 20-20 vision) is a dispiriting short, with mordant political humor, and it speaks the truth sharp and crisp.
Mariana Chenillo's La Tienda de Raya was one of the most promising shorts, mostly well written, well directed and well acted, but the end is disappointing. The protagonist, a woman with a mellifluous voice who works at a big supermarket, is invited on a date by her besotted store manager and she wants to fix her front false teeth for the occasion. But she doesn't have enough money for the treatment. The store pays part of her salary with food vouchers (this is reminiscent of pre-revolution days, in which peasants were swindled out of their impoverished earnings by having to buy their food at the estate stores of the landowners, an abusive practice that died with the revolution). The woman wants to be paid in cash and the store says no. A fellow employee gives her the number of a lawyer who then files a lawsuit against the store. I was surprised that Chenillo makes the woman into a passive victim, instead of someone a la Norma Rae, who takes a stand -- a little personal revolution. Instead, the woman acts surprised when she sees the lawsuit document, as if she had nothing to do with it, is fired and end of story. This kind of futile ending is one of many instances in Revolución that show acute disillusionment with the way things are. But a passive, clueless protagonist is not as interesting as someone who acts, or at least learns something from her experience.
The last short in the film, Alvarado and 7th, by Rodrigo García, is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, a vignette of life unfolding today in slow motion at that very Mexican corner of Los Angeles, as some Mexican revolutionaries on horseback pass by, while people continue their comings and goings without noticing. It is beautiful and poetic, (what good was the revolution if 11 million Mexicans are living north of the border?) but I was a little underwhelmed. I wished to see the horses at least run into a gallop.
I am not a fan of Gerardo Naranjo's films, and his short was more stylish than substantive, yet it was bold, sparse and arresting, although he could have told the same story in 5 minutes. A man is carrying a wounded man on his shoulders. They are both bloody; we don't know why. They come to a road. Nobody stops. The man who isn't wounded goes to a bridge and throws a rock down at a car, smashing the windshield, but the car just gets the hell out of there. Then he finds some metal things to throw, aims at a motorcycle, kills the guy and then takes his friend on the motorcycle. Lawlessness. A cycle of violence. End of short.
We know we can count on Carlos Reygadas to lay it on thick with his insistence on epater-ing le bourgeois come hell or high water. I thought his entry was interesting the first five minutes. Beats me if I'm getting this right, but it looks like he assembled a bunch of Mexicans of different social classes for a picnic of sorts in Tepoztlán, a small colonial hippie town near Mexico City, and he had 5 cameras recording bits of conversation. Bad sound, shaky camera work, and people talking mostly bullshit. The rich Mexicans look as appalling as they are in real life, the poor ones as ignored as they are in real life and neither the twain shall meet, which is as it is in real life. This being Reygadas, there has to be a shot with an unkempt indigent man touching himself -- we are lucky that Reygadas didn't bring in a morbidly obese woman to perform fellatio on a midget. I liked the audacity of the approach at the beginning, but when a formless 10 minute short feels like 10 hours, interest quickly becomes annoyance. Kids destroy an abandoned car, people get wasted, they start destroying stuff, but it is not entirely clear what the point is of this exercise. I assume it is to represent, in sort of a hellish tableau vivant, what Mexico is like: chaos neatly separated by race and class. But as is usual with Reygadas, I always smell a whiff of exploitation of the non-actors in his work and a big puff of self-important auterism. I find him hard to take.
Also rather pretentious, but less oblique, is Amat Escalante's El Cura Colgado, also Rulfian and stark in its aesthetic, like the Eimbcke short. A priest is hanging from a tree, his horse and altar boy burned. If you are Mexican, you know this must be taking place at the time of the Cristero war, a bloody episode tied to the revolution in which scores of Catholics were massacred. A boy and a girl appear on a donkey and untie the priest. The donkey gives out and the 3 souls walk in the desert, fleeing from violence. They walk and they walk until suddenly they come to a modern road, pockmarked with Costco and McDonald's. They cross a barbed wire fence and walk among the cars, asking for charity. To judge from the pixelated faces of some of the drivers, this was shot cinema verité like, without obtaining releases, which is unnecessarily distracting and confusing. The end scene takes place at a McDonald's counter, with the three hungry and thirsty protagonists staring at the menu board in incomprehension. I get the very obvious point, but this scene made me think that even though we despair at the proliferation of food chains in Mexico, we are still poor enough that wherever you find a McDonald's, you are bound to find a perfectly decent taco stand around the corner. The next Mexican revolution may very well happen the day there is no more street food left to eat.
Lucio, directed by Gael García Bernal, is charming but underwritten. Too much vague symbolism without a coherent end. I extrapolate that it is some sort of parable about the tension between worship of government or worship of Catholicism, as symbolized by a group of young schoolchildren who are grappling with the demands of honoring those two powerful traditional forces in Mexico that are meant to be respected without questioning. Lucio, the young boy of the title, decides to stay away from both.
To be honest, I got the Cliff notes from Bernal, who explained his short at the Q&A. Without the explanation I'd be more at a loss. As many of the shorts in this collection, Lucio is a bit vague and doesn't have a compelling end, which makes the story feel weak.
Lindo y Querido, by Patricia Riggen, exasperated me. This is a matter of sensibility. The short was of the few that is actually more fleshed out, but I have little patience for heavy handed cuteness and even less for sentimentality. A sick Mexican man in the US and asks to be buried in Mexico when he dies. His very Americanized daughter thinks this is a pain in the butt, which it is, but there are funeral agencies that repatriate dead Mexicans to be buried in the soil they miss and love but that never gave them much.
So she brings the dead man across the border (we've seen this before in Guillermo Arriaga's script of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). This cutesy stuff with dead people a la Weekend at Bernie's is not my cup of tea. It turns out that her grandfather had been a revolutionary and she learns the lesson of loving the land that you fight for even though it has treated you harshly. It seems petty to find issue with a short that has such good intentions and is a total crowd pleaser but I wish that Riggen could have kept her sentimental impulses in check.
Pacífico, by Diego Luna, to me was one of the weakest stories, which is disappointing, since Luna directed a very good documentary about boxer Julio César Chávez. This short is a muddled personal story of a young man who buys land in a corner of an undeveloped Mexican beach paradise (there must be exactly one beach left untouched) and he has to deal with his estrangement from his wife and child, a sleazy developer, and the locals. By the end, he misses his family and goes back to have dinner with his little boy. Not much rhyme nor reason to this one.
Absolutely none of the filmmakers felt they had anything to celebrate. The sense of disenchantment with the vastly unfulfilled promise of the revolution is the unifying thread of the film. All and all, most of the shorts could have been stronger, tighter and more effective.