Review: Que Viva México!

Like Luis Buñuel after him, Sergei Eisenstein was too anarchistic for the Hollywood studio system to tame.

Que Viva México!
Photo: International Film Exchange

If Leni Riefenstahl was Hitler’s point-person for political propaganda, Sergei Eisenstein was Stalin’s whore. But unlike any of the films Riefensthal produced for the Third Reich, Eisenstein’s films are masterworks of political subversion made for the Russian people but nonetheless critical of the collectivist system under which they were made. Born in 1898 in the Riga region of Russia, Eisenstein cultivated a revolutionary form of film editing through such masterpieces as Strike and Battleship Potemkin that would forever inform the way films are cut. The radical blend of narrative fiction and documentary footage in works like Alexander Nevsky (a film considered the precursor to the modern-day music video) defy classification, as well it should considering that Eisenstein directed each and every one of his propagandistic masterpieces with an unsettling and irrepressible feverishness that make them entirely too difficult to pin down.

Like Luis Buñuel after him, Eisenstein was too anarchistic for the Hollywood studio system to tame. Shortly after making the bourgeois short comedy Romance Sentimentale (which would play nicely on a surrealist double bill with Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or), Eisenstein went to Mexico in 1931 with assistant director Eduard Tisse and producer Grigory Alexandrov to shoot a film about the country’s mythic landscape with the financial help of writer Upton Sinclair, the muck-racking genius behind 1905’s controversial slaughterhouse exposé The Jungle, and his wife Mary Craig. Shooting stopped in 1932 after a series of financial mishaps with most of the work completed, though one of the film’s segments couldn’t be filmed. The Stalinist regime prevented Eisenstein from ever seeing Que viva México! as he had intended it though Sinclair had approved two separate interpretations of the film: 1933’s Thunder Over Mexico and 1939’s Time in the Sun.

Currently, filmmaker and researcher Lutz Becker is working on his own interpretation of Eisenstein’s unfinished masterwork using the film’s original negatives and master prints. But in 1979, producer Alexandrov was allowed to assemble the picture using Eisenstein’s storyboards and outlines to create an approximation of the director’s original vision. No version of the film can ever capture exactly how Eisenstein would have assembled the footage he shot in Mexico from 1931 to 1932, and as such Alexandrov’s interpretation of the director’s Que viva México! (“as Eisenstein conceived it and as we planned it”) becomes rather slippery when analyzed using an auteurist model. (In a way, isn’t any cut of the film considered an anti-auteurist gesture?) But if the film as it exists now can’t tell us for sure how Eisenstein would have shaped the footage, make no mistake: these delirious images that map out a Mexican mythology and social unrest are unquestionably his own creations.

Despite the devastating, elegiac tone of its images, Que viva México! is still every bit as unnerving and aesthetically confrontational as October. And just as the film would inform later works by Orson Welles (It’s All True), Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) and Sergio Leone (A Fistfull of Dollars), many of its images anticipate later works by Eisenstein. (One of the film’s more startling images is that of a Mexican woman looking down at an ancient pyramid, a shot which brings to mind the more famous image of Nikolai Cherkasov’s Czar Ivan IV from the director’s Ivan the Terrible films staring down from his palace window at a line of advancing worshipers.) With Que viva México!, Eisenstein intended to document the mythic struggle of a Mexican people in a perpetual state of unrest, dividing their history into six parts: Prologue, Sandunga, Conquest, Fiesta, Magey, Soldadera (the only episode that wasn’t completed) and Epilogue.

Mexico learned about Mexican history and its people through artists like Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco, and it’s obvious from the start that Eisenstein was enamored with the country. The genius of the film’s Prologue is how Eisenstein successfully evokes an eternal Mexico in suspended cultural animation. The entire episode takes place in the Yucatan, a beautiful region of Mexico seemingly possessed by its stone gods, pagan temples and marvelous pyramids. Here, “time flows slowly” and Eisenstein’s images evoke a certain near-frozen sense of evolution by placing the film’s modern Mexicans beside their ancient stone counterparts. Immediately, the director has set up a fascinating struggle between the past and the present that permeates the rest of the picture and is indicative of what Eisenstein considers both the country’s strength and devastating weakness.

Throughout the film’s Sandunga episode, Eisenstein’s images bring to mind an Eden uncontaminated by Spanish culture. Eisenstein’s text describes life in the province of Tehuantepec as “a slow, semi-vegetative existence,” pointing to a certain pure, symbiotic relationship between man and nature by situating the people of the region before tranquil landscapes inundated with trees and lush vegetation. There’s a strange but serene geometry to this segment (look for the delirious graphic match between a stone necklace and a man sitting on a hammock) that suggests a people untainted by modern influences. The culture here is largely matriarchal and the central narrative concerns a young girl named Concepcion and her attempts to raise a dowry for her future husband Abundio. Even the names of the film’s first couple is largely metaphoric, and though the episode ends in bliss (two parrots engage in love play on a tree branch above the couple’s heads) it hardly anticipates the fall of Eden evoked by the film’s central Magey episode.

Throughout the Conquest and Fiesta episodes, Eisenstein evokes the painful legacy of Cortes’s invasion of Mexico in the 16th century with an elaborate juxtaposition of codes and symbolic struggles. The celebration depicted here is largely in service of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe and though Eisenstein is obviously critical of the Catholic Church, the incredible marriage of sparring symbols throughout the episode recognizes a Mexican collective in spiritual limbo. The monks who came to the region destroyed ancient temples in order to build their churches, converting the so-called heathens of the region to Catholicism. Eisenstein seems to understand why the film’s Mexicans are so hung-up on ironic, ritualized celebrations of their own devastation. Mexico has been unduly influenced by Spain (the Fiesta bullfighting sequence symbolically pits both countries and their respective cultures against each other), but Eisenstein’s strange puppet show continues to contemplate the lingering threat of the people’s ultimately irrepressible past.

In the Magey episode, the peasant Sebastian wages a battle against a colonial landlord (a doppelganger perhaps for Mexican dictator Porfirio Dias) who ravages his wife Maria. This cruel, lyrical battle begins on a rich hacienda and culminates in a delirious confrontation in a barren desert that is home to the phallic Maguey cactus. (The cactus shields the film’s peons from colonialist gunfire and its white juice feeds their stomachs.) Que viva México! plays out as a collection of images that repeatedly pit classic paired rivals against each other: paganism versus Christianity, nature versus culture, virginity versus sexual perversion, night versus day, poor versus rich, and so on. And with the film’s ghoulish Prologue, Eisenstein encodes these various battles in the Day of the Dead sugar masks worn and consumed by Mexican children. He marvels at “man’s triumph over death through mockery of it” but the film’s melancholic tone suggests that Spain may have forever sent Mexico spiraling into a spiritual and cultural limbo from which it has yet to recover.

 Cast: Martín Hernández, Félix Balderas, Isabel Villaseñor, Julio Saldívar, David Liceága, Sergei Bondarchuk  Director: Sergei Eisenstein  Screenwriter: Grigory Alexandrov, Sergei Eisenstein  Distributor: International Film Exchange  Running Time: 85 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1931/1979  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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