The Welcome Ceremony, the first episode in Revolución, an anthology film in which 10 different directors reflect on the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, is a marvel of short-form filmmaking. Working with a sketch-like narrative, and making expert use of Alejandro Cantú’s crisply evocative black-and-white camerawork, director Fernando Eimbcke transforms a dusty Mexican village into a world as tactile as it is ghostly. As a young man practices his tuba for an upcoming welcome ceremony that never happens, Eimbcke patiently frames his character in a series of perfectly balanced compositions, eerily flaring the lights of a nearby highway or lingering on the grit of a scrubby terrain, moving us unhurriedly toward the story’s modest but superbly satisfying payoff.
Beautiful and Beloved, the follow-up segment, is, by contrast, a mess. Inverting Eimbcke’s smart adherence to a Miesian less-is-more aesthetic, Patricia Riggen’s entry jams far too much material into its 10-minute running time. A story of a young American-born Chicana who learns to embrace her heritage by traveling to the motherland for her father’s funeral, Beautiful and Beloved has too much narrative, relies too heavily on character development, and tries to mix too many modes for a short-form piece. (Most embarrassing of these genre switches is the episode’s unfortunate dip into the comic, as Riggen stages a Weekend at Bernie’s-style crossing-the-border-with-a-dressed-up-corpse set piece.)
But beyond the question of how to approach the limitations imposed by the 10-minute short (a supremely difficult form that only a handful of the 10 directors in Revolución seem comfortable working in), the first two segments offer a telling contrast in how the filmmakers choose to address the project’s thematic parameters. Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1910 uprising, which began with the overthrow of longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz, and eventually led the establishment of a new constitution and the granting of significant rights to peasants, the film charges its participants with “creat[ing] a contemporary vision of the Revolution.” As the movie’s somewhat awkwardly worded statement puts it, “We are not talking about a look at the past…but rather…the present and exposing different approaches to the idea of a revolution.”
Given such a broad concept, the possibilities for treatment remain almost limitless, but it’s interesting to note that the first two episodes lay out the twin poles for approaching the stated thematic. The Welcome Ceremony deals with revolution in only the most abstract way; the marching band waiting to perform for some unspecified guest may be commemorating the 1910 events, while the tuba player’s defiant decision to play for no one might hint at the importance of individual agency in effecting history. While everyone waits for something to happen, he acts. Beautiful and Beloved, by contrast, puts the legacy of the Revolution front and center by making the lead character the granddaughter of one of its heroes. Skeptical of her heritage, this American-born woman tells her mother, “At the end of the day, the rich stayed rich, the poor, poor,” to which the older woman replies that, thanks to the Revolution, “we won citizenship and the right to vote.” Unimpressed, the daughter references the family’s decision to flee their homeland. “And then we became immigrants,” she says, “with green cards.” Later, in Mexico, a relative confesses that her grandfather’s gun is “really all we have left of the Revolution.”
Still, if Beautiful and Beloved questions the lasting consequences of 1910, it still confirms the importance of a generational cultural inheritance. Three other shorts take a considerably more jaundiced view of that legacy, drawing on abstract approximations of revolution and its aftermath with mixed degrees of success. Amat Escalante’s The Hanging Priest and Carlos Reygadas’s This Is My Kingdom create two very different apocalyptic visions of revolution, the former through a Buñuelian (via Jodorowsky) trip across a stark black-and-white landscape, the latter through an increasingly destructive country outing. If, despite some undeniably striking imagery (the burned corpses of a horse and an altar boy which lay smoking in the desert, a priest hanging upside down from a tree), Escalante’s film is a little too vague in its narrative specifics to be wholly effective, Reygadas brilliantly uses sounds and images devoid of specific context to generate an ineluctable feeling of mounting hysteria. Building from rapid snippets of conversation among the varied assembly of people at a countryside retreat to even rapider snippets of action once the guests turn to downing copious amounts of booze, throwing bricks at cars and setting everything in sight on fire, the Battle in Heaven auteur imagines revolution as the coming together of people with diverse interests in the pursuit of a giddy destruction. Working in a similar vein but with a fair bit less inspiration, Gerardo Naranjo uses eye-popping digital colors, a horror movie setting, and a good deal of narrative abstraction to present revolution (or is it the conditions that necessitate revolution?) as a question of one human being preying on another. It’s only when Naranjo gets too literal—ironically framing some of the action against a sign that reads “Vive México”—that things start to sputter.
If these segments use abstract settings and decontextualized events to hint at the less glamorous aspects of armed uprising, then Revolución also offers a counter-strain of more traditional narratives that attempt to probe the modern day consequences of the Revolution. If these latter episodes are generally less successful, it probably has something to do with the difficulty of telling a “full” story in 10 minutes, but whatever the reason, Mariana Chenillo’s The Estate Store (which updates the conditions of pre-revolutionary feudalism to follow a convenience store worker forced to receive a portion of her salary in vouchers), Diego Luna’s Pacifico (in which a light-skinned man attempts to build on a beachfront populated by natives at the cost of his own family life), and the above-mentioned Beautiful and Beloved all seem too literal. A bit more successful, if still overburdened by the restrictions of short-form filmmaking, are Rodrigo Plá’s 30/30, which uses a town’s dedication ceremony to comment on the easy appropriation of revolutionary iconography, and Gael García Bernal’s slightly too abstract Lucio, in which a school assignment forces a boy to rethink his feelings about Mexico.
Still, all are preferable to the film’s closing segment, Rodrigo Garcia’s 7th and Alvarado. In that piece, the Mother and Child director uses eye-bleedingly crisp digital video and ultra slow-mo staging to present snippets of a Latino community going about their daily business. By the time we realize that the community is set not below the border but in Los Angeles’s primarily Hispanic Westlake neighborhood, Garcia has loosed a procession of revolucionarios parading through the streets while the people go on their way, oblivious to the marching anachronism in their midst. Like Patricia Riggen’s feisty main character, Garcia seems to be suggesting that the real legacy of the Revolution is the quotidian lives of Mexican immigrants in the United States. But mostly he just shows us a lot of people moving in excruciatingly slow motion for some reason that is probably only apparent to him.