Jorge Fons’s blistering social manifesto El Atentado begins with a crisp collage of friendly postcards drifting over opening credits. Despite this cinematic welcome mat, the resolute political reckoning that follows is anything but pretty. A period piece oozing with labyrinthine set design and layered color schemes on par with Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, El Atentado explores the many diverging and dissecting narratives surrounding the attempted assassination of President Porfirio Diaz (Arturo Beristain) in 1897 by a drunkard named Arnulfo Arroyo (Jose Maria Yazpik). The crucial events that follow—Arroyo’s arrest and death, the impending investigation, and the communal ramifications—create ripples that jettison a round robin of characters into dark corners of personal and collective unease. The judgmental impressions from government overlords, wealthy debutantes, police personnel, and Arroyo’s peasant family all overlap during lengthy vignettes connected by a specific, unsettlingly impressionistic view of the past. Everyone, even the vagabonds on the street, claims to know the truth, but no one source is reliable, and that’s the point.
As a result, El Atentado resonates with hypnotic flourishes of memory that are often inconsistent and contradictory, all while keeping the overall seamless style and critical focus equally congruous. When any one important moment unfolds, like the assassination attempt itself, the perspective of the participant produces three different variations on the action, scenarios that are elementally connected with the character’s hopes, dreams, and failures. Framing this audacious editing style is a classically embossed visual aesthetic, including sweeping shots of the countryside filtered through a hazy viewfinder, imagery that purposefully blurs any sense of realism. This is a visceral, eye-popping mise-en-scène, one where fluid camera movement reveals unexplored narrative canals wrapping around and through closed-door meetings and secret sexual dalliances. Behind these barriers are disavowed perspectives harboring specific insights, often contrasting realms of truth. Fons makes sure to let us in on all the dirty little secrets. Yet like the façade of honor and populism perpetrated by Diaz and his crooked flunkies, the smoothness of the cinematography masks a preternatural deceit rotting many institutions from the core. As a result, the necessary human elements pertaining to Arnulfo and many of the other characters are subverted, cropped out in order to retain a crippling political and social status quo.
Fons successfully builds thematic architecture out of multiple subplots and historical possibilities that indict corruption and greed while celebrating the imagination and durability of the common people. Many of the flashbacks unveiling more information about Arnulfo’s past and the stranglehold of Diaz’s regime are intercut with scenes of a vaudeville style theatre troop recreating the filmed events for a massive public audience. The raunchy and hilarious performances are brilliantly satirical, conveying a sense that the populace at large is able to circumvent, contort, and remold the constructed historical “facts” in order to better combat the blatant criminal acts covered up by the governing elite. El Atentado suggests, and rather convincingly, that there are many outcomes to this particular case and others like it, and it’s up to the survivors to critically examine the historical events, and discern how much fiction resides in the popular “truth.”
“I’m poor, I’m black, and I’m a boy”…all reasons a young Brazilian child of African descent, who eventually grows up to be the folk legend Besouro (Ailton Carmo), believes he will never master capoeira and fly through the air like his master foretells. The opening scene, a classic mentor/disciple addition to the martial arts genre, directly addresses the devastating mental stranglehold the local Brazilian National Guard has over the disenfranchised black community. Through a myriad of magical realist tangents and breakneck action set pieces, Besouro destroys this oppressive ideology one sweeper kick at a time. Directed by João Daniel Tikhomiroff, the film reinvigorates pride and strength for the suppressed black peasants trying to transcend the effects of slavery by practicing capoeira.
Besouro is not a standard genre film, and in the stunning first half, Tikhomiroff establishes the majestic powers Besouro (or “Beetle”) learns to wield during surrealist visits from his supernatural ancestors. Vivid colors, elemental sound effects, and pinpoint blocking frame a young man realizing not only physical potential, but a place in his people’s disappearing cultural timeline. The sequences culminate in first person POV shots showing Besouro’s perspective transition to that of a beetle, or frog, or bird. The image hops and flies so seamlessly it can’t help but invigorate, elevating the mythological aspects of a vibrant movement battling extinction. Besouro takes some major missteps in its sloppy second half, basically replacing the most fascinating cultural and critical elements with standard melodrama and revenge. Also, the violent climax is surprisingly inert, unforgivable after such a promising start. Too bad, because for 45 minutes, Besouro is one exemplary example of how a struggling community can powerfully reclaim a sense of self through cinematic ballet.
The San Diego Latino Film Festival runs from March 10—20.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.