499


The conquistadors of colonialism still haunt Mexico.

(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
NEXT:
They/Them/Us

Rat Film


Oh, rats!

(2016) Experimental Documentary (The Cinema Guild) No cast listed. Directed by Theo Anthony

You dirty rat. Rat bastard. Rat fink. The fact is, rats are not looked on fondly by our society. They are symbols of decay and rot, of filth and poverty. Rats are bringers of pestilence; it is said that they brought the Black Death to Europe but in fact, it was parasites living on the rats that carried the plague. Have rats been getting a bad rap?

Well, no. Rats do carry a variety of diseases and thrive in urban decay. Anthony’s debut feature documentary – or feature experimental documentary to be more accurate – is not so much a feature but a collection of shorts thrown together, sometimes incomprehensibly, with an overall theme of rats in Baltimore – and even that isn’t always true.

The movie is narrated by a female voice that sounds a bit like a distaff Stephen Hawking or more to the point, a primitive bored-sounding Siri. There is also an odd popping sound on the soundtrack throughout that I’m thinking was put there intentionally, if for no other reason than to further annoy the audience which Anthony probably thinks of as “challenging the audience.” Maybe he’s right.

There are a lot of vignettes that may or may not have anything to do with anything else; we follow a city-employed rat exterminator (none of those who appear in the film are named) who is both humane and philosophical; “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” he opines during a break from visiting homes in Baltimore’s poorest areas, “It’s a people problem.” That is apparently because the city of Baltimore more than a century ago set out to divide the neighborhoods by desirability and then focus services on the desirable area. Those in the redlined areas were essentially left to rot and rot they did.

There are sequences where a computer-generated Baltimore is created from a rat’s point of view. Where there are gaps in the program, star fields are shown. Here, the film seems to say, there be rats. Or perhaps more accurately, here there be software glitches. Take your pick.

The sequence showing doll house crime scene recreations from the 30s that are still used today for CSI training (and can be viewed by the public in a museum setting) was interesting. The CGI rat in a maze was not. There is no flow to the film; at times it just seems like Anthony is throwing things at the screen and seeing what sticks. I termed it cinematic masturbation when I saw it; after having reflected on it for a couple of weeks, I’m not sure I was right but I can understand why others might think so

The movie was deeply polarizing. Friends of mine have been singing its praises; others think it’s one of the worst films to ever play the Florida Film Festival. I’m not a fan; perhaps I prefer my documentaries to be more traditional and am not ready for this kind of challenge. I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer however if I didn’t point out that this really isn’t for everybody; some of the scenes (such as amateur rat catchers luring rats from a garbage-strewn alleyway with turkey slices smeared with peanut butter on a fishhook and then beating them to death with a baseball bat, and the final scene in which a snake devours a helpless baby rat) may make sensitive audience members uncomfortable, and the sensory assault of the computer graphics may also do the same.

I would never tell anyone not to go see a movie, even one that I absolutely loathed. I don’t absolutely loathe this one. The exterminator is an interesting character study and there are moments here and there that I found fascinating. While the linking of rats to urban blight and racism felt more obvious than perhaps was intended, the filmmaker shows a certain sympathy towards the rats. I only wish he’d had a little more for his audience.

REASONS TO GO: The city exterminator is an interesting guy and his story is the most compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has absolutely no flow; it’s a bunch of images thrown up on the screen without any sort of rhyme or reason. There is a popping sound on the soundtrack that was most annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity present as well as scenes that may make animal lovers a bit uncomfortable..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is composed by electronic music star Dan Deacon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sans Soleil
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: The Archer