Like most omnibus movies, Revolución is uneven and sometimes underdeveloped. It can’t be easy to tell a powerful story in 10 minutes or less, which was one of the conditions posed to the 10 filmmakers (the others were that it be set in the present and—most importantly—that it say something about the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, which began 100 years ago with the ouster of Porfirio Díaz). Maybe that’s why the segments that worked best for me were more about setting a tone or creating a metaphor than telling a story.
They also tended to be the least talky ones. In The Welcome Ceremony, San Felipe Otlatelpec, the kind of rural town that’s always being neglected by Mexico’s ruling elite, prepares a welcoming ceremony for visiting dignitaries who never arrive. The film follows Armancio, the tuba player for the local band that is supposed to play at the ceremony, giving us a good sense of his life and the significance to him of this performance in a lovely, near-wordless sequence that starts one afternoon and ends the following morning. Director Fernando Eimbcke, whose Duck Season was a drily funny tale of adolescents run amok, shoots this one in a creamy black and white that brings out the beauty in the landscape and faces. It also evokes classic images of Mexico from the first half of the last century (in the Q&A after the press screening, Patricia Riggen, another of the film’s directors, said the look was “clearly styled on Juan Rulfo’s still photography”), underscoring how little has changed in Armancio’s daily life and village since the revolution.
This Is My Kingdom uses a barbecue as a metaphor for Mexico’s deteriorating social fabric. The party starts out more or less sunnily, as people of all ages, skin colors, and social classes gather to groom and tease one another or to engage in animated conversations while several people with video cameras record it all. But as the sun sets, the behavior degenerates. Drunks pass out and are treated roughly; kids start trashing a car and are joined by grownups, who eventually set it on fire. Director Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light, Battle in Heaven) doesn’t wrap things up neatly, ending with a scan of firelit faces. Some wear the impassive mask of the powerless and a few are excited by the chaos, but most look distressed and uneasy.
Another bleak parable is Gerardo Narajano’s R-100, which I took to be about the cycle of violence Mexico is mired in these days. Completely wordless, it follows two men, one of them badly wounded and the other trying to save his life, as they emerge from a field to a sparsely traveled highway. When nobody will stop to pick them up, the healthy man kills a biker, drags his bloody body into the underbrush that the man and his friend just emerged from, and rides off on the bike, his friend’s blood-soaked body draped across the back seat.
Revolución ends with another dialogue-free segment, 7th and Alvarado. Director Rodrigo Garcia introduces a Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles with scenes of everyday street life, shot in that slow-mo that is so slow and fluid that people look as if they’re floating through gravity-free space. Then he brings on the cavalry: a group of Mexican revolutionaries, who ride in straight out of the early 20th century, looking dismayed at the banality that surrounds them. “Is this what we fought for?” they seem to be wondering. The segment lasts too long, the sting of its point fading, but it creates a strong and sad mood that feels right.
Revolución doesn’t delve into anything too deeply, but certain themes surface often enough to coalesce into a spotty and impressionistic picture of life in Mexico. The importance of Catholicism comes through loudly, if not always clearly, as do the often serene beauty of the landscape and the prevalence of poverty and violence. Casually callous inhumanity is all too common. The ghost of the U.S. diaspora haunts life in Mexico, and vice versa.
In the Q&A after the screening, Riggen talked about the hard times Mexico is going through but said the movie itself was a hopeful sign, since the government sponsored the film with the clear understanding that the filmmakers would question as well as celebrate the Revolution. “I find that a really big step in our society,” she said. That kind of free speech would have been impossible as recently as 10 years ago, she added, but “we never had any censorship. Nobody ever asked us anything or questioned anything.”
That does sound like a hopeful sign—and, perhaps, an explanation for the fact that this film feels like an often-inchoate sophomore effort. Most of the filmmakers here are just beginning their directing careers, having made only one or two features (though, perhaps not coincidentally, the only ones with more experience—Reygadas, Naranjo, and Garcia—directed three of my four favorite segments.) Maybe they, like Armancio the tuba player, just need a little more practice.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.