A rebel story where the heroes’ defeat isn’t only inevitable, but shorn of all bravado, The Last Christeros forsakes most of the underdog sentimentality found in traditional genre treatments of noble sacrifice. After an introductory audio clip of a real-life combatant describing the start of the Cristiada, an armed conflict of the 1920s and ’30s between a Mexican government bent on reining in the rights of the church and Catholic defenders of the faith, director and co-writer Matías Meyer eschews exposition or impassioned rhetoric in favor of painterly, balanced compositions setting his band of five guerrillas across semi-desert hillsides, with spare dialogue often giving way to a soundtrack of chirping birds and insects, occasionally supplemented by gunfire resounding through ravines. A sixth member of the cristero band is fatally wounded during an opening retreat, but draws the return of one of his brothers-in-arms only to relieve the corpse of his valuable rifle.
Such unblinking practicality is embodied by the group’s stony-faced coronel (Alejandro Limón), a leader apt to walk away silently if one of his men suggests that it’s best to give up the revolution and return to their families, or respond to an offer of amnesty with a request for a confessor (“We feel the need to purify our souls”). Not that this commander is characterized as a martinet subverting the greater good of surrender; Meyer’s lens views the five essentially as a unit in all circumstances, regarding them as individuals perhaps only in a series of portrait-style one-shots, with an artificial star-filled sky as the backdrop. (Low angles notwithstanding, the temptation to gaze at them reverently is punctured by their ravenous eating and drinking.) Living out the final days of their revolt on behalf of Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the fugitive life has become a routine, whether in the mundanity of filling a dozen or so remaining shotgun shells with powder or singing sad war ballads over their dinner fire. One of the best scenes disrupts this slow but abstract march toward death when the cristeros kill a possibly traitorous ally and raid his kitchen. The commander and his stunned-looking youngest soldier share swigs from a bottle, saying nothing, until their eyes meet and they share a benumbed laugh and shrug.
Meyer’s quiet, occasionally arid approach to this material only opens up slightly to more tender emotions when the rebels are reunited in an encampment with their families for what they know will be the last time. The filmmaker is content to regard their strength of principle as a calm, defining state of being, giving The Last Christeros a placid aesthetic to mirror the holy certainty of its inhabitants’ souls. (He likely goes a bit far by saturating his final tableau with baptism and crucifixion imagery.) A slow panning shot of the five martyrs in waiting, one wounded, waiting out a thunderstorm in a cave summons up the formalism of Terence Davies, and Meyer’s film of seldom-recalled political history, often utilizing a fixed camera or slow movement, is as rigorously against the grain of handheld naturalism as Davies’s paeans to extinct pop culture.