(2020) Documentary Drama (The Cinema Guild) Eduardo San Juan Breña, Alicia Valencia (voice), Jorge Sánchez, Martha González, Sixto Cabrera, Lorena Gutierrez. Directed by Rodrigo Reyes
The lines between documentary and feature are normally well-delineated. Sometimes, truth and fiction can blur and through the use of both, we can discover the greater truths that lie beneath the mere facts.
A nameless conquistador washes up on a Veracruz beach. The last he knew it was 1521 and he was sailing home with the ill-gotten riches of his expedition. Suddenly, he finds himself in 2020, 499 years later, in modern Mexico. Something inside him is urging him to retrace his steps, the march that Cortes took from what is now Veracruz to the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan, what is modern-day Mexico City. Along the way, he loses the ability to speak and is forced to listen to the sadness of others caught in their own tales of woe.
We hear from those who search for loved ones who have disappeared at the hands of the drug cartels, often with the complicity of the police and federal law enforcement that is supposed to be protecting them. We are shown the overwhelming grief and horror as they describe atrocities that seem foreign to us, but are everyday events where they come from. There is a brutality, a barbarity that is present in these acts that make them more than mere violence.
But the conquistador is not without his own madness. He brags about his own atrocities, committed against the indigenous tribes of Mexico. He talks about manipulating them to join the cause against the all-powerful Aztecs, enabling a small band of Spanish soldiers to conquer a nation. He brags about promising them heaven with no intention of keeping any of their promises. Inelegantly and subtly, Reyes draws a direct line between the brutality of colonialism and the violence of the modern cartels.
Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia captures lovely vistas that are both familiar and alien as the conquistador wanders through natural settings and man-made, through pueblos and garbage heaps. The further he travels, the more stories he hears, the more he is forced to reckon with the consequences of his actions five centuries previous. In that sense, this is true for Mexico as well, a country that has never adequately reconciled their native heritage with their colonial one. For that matter, neither have we.
Reyes also tackles the immigration issue and portrays the Central American immigrants not as hordes of ravening murderers nd rapists, as an ex-President of this country portrayed them, but as people fleeing violence and poverty, willing to undertake an extremely perilous journey to hopefully make it to a country where they have a shot at a decent life. When I think of what these people have seen, what they have endured, it just makes me heartsick for their suffering, and enraged at the callous disregard by the demagogues who demonize them. Karma is coming at those sorts like a freight train.
Through all of this we witness the sad-eyed figure of the conquistador. He is both anachronistic and completely belonging in this culture, for it is a product of his brutality. He is to be scorned and pitied, becase for all his posturing about carrying the cross before him, there is nothing Christ-like in his actions, and he gradually comes to realize it. The film ends in a somewhat unexpected way – I won’t share any details, but it did take me by surprise and quite frankly, upon reflection, makes perfect sense.
IOne thing worthy of mention; the sound here. Reyes leans heavily on natural sounds; the waves of the ocean, the wind through the grass, the soft patter of rain. The movie is entirely in Spanish (with subtitles) so those who don’t speak Spanish may well find themselves being seduced by the sounds of the film; even those who do speak Spanish will appreciate the way sound plays a role in the film.
I have visited Mexico numerous times, and have many Mexican friends, both Mexican nationals and immigrants to this country. Those that live here now are proud of their heritage, but proud to be Americans as well. They preserve as much of their culture as they can while trying to navigate this one. There are conflicts from time to time and it isn’t easy – but that’s true of any immigrant to any country. I know this firsthand from the experiences of my own parents, who emigrated from Cuba and Canada to make lives here.
But Mexico haunts us like a quiet ghost, lurking at our Southern border and I don’t use the description lightly; Reyes has given us a movie that is almost otherworldly in nature and of course it invites such similes. We are aware peripherally of the violence, of the corruption, and we think of the citizens as backwards savages who deserve it. In our arrogance, we repeat the attitudes of those who came to Mexico in 1521 and fail to learn the lessons that history teaches us, if we only open our eyes and see.
REASONS TO SEE: Some very intense, firsthand emotional testimony about the atrocities committed by cartels. Wonderful use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find the weaving of fiction and fact off-putting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and vivid descriptions of violence and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: 2021 is the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortes. The title of the movie reflects the year of conquest when the movie was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10