Before The Revolution By Alberto Ramos

in 27th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Alberto Ramos Ruiz

Recently shown at the Havana Festival of New Latin American Cinema, the Mexican The Citrillo’s Turns (Las Vueltas del Citrillo) took the main jury awards for best direction (Felipe Cazals) and best male performance (Damián Alcázar), and came second among the top prizes for best film. Set in Mexico City at the beginning of the 20 th century, in the times of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, the film does not surrender to the temptation of a meticulous historical chronicle documenting what a Marxist would call the “objective situation” that precedes any impending revolution. Rather, the film’s scope is deliberately narrow; instead of a grandiose, revolutionary epic, it remains closer to a chamber piece, approaching what playwright and novelist Don Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936) called “esperpentos”, a sort of grotesque, colloquially exuberant and highly cinematic portrayal of decadence in early 20th century Spain. This is revealed in the film’s almost theatrical and decaying settings like old frescoes eroded by misery and abandonment; an episodic narrative in the no-man’s land of magic realism; parodic quotations as intertitles and reproducing ad literam army rule; leaning towards the cartoonish and bizarre in the grand guignol tradition. It parades jealous officers, wanton ladies and venal priests; and revives vernacular speech in verse, a wealth of forgotten jargon and sayings that, in a remarkable sequence, turns a sexy romp between a soldier and a single mother into an exhilarating exchange of verbal wit ending up in outright blasphemy.

The story revolves around three men: powerful, selfish and resentful, embodied by Sergeant Collazo; demanding obedience, blinded by ignorance, of Corporal Aboytes, and the cold, amoral indulgence of the psychopath soldier José Isabel. The film opens with several civilians being murdered in daylight by this infernal trio, action set against the ruins of what seems to be a church, in a composition whose blunt texture conveys the rationale of plunder of its time, endorsed by the recurrent motif of bloodstained coins that the soldiers tear away from the corpses.

However, if prompted for a protagonist of this atmospheric mise-en-scène and its perfect match of real and surreal, it would certainly be the bar “Las Vueltas del Citrillo”. A gloomy and feverish mood pervades everything, and towards the end, as if imagination were triggered by the milky drink served to the customers, the dead show up in the crowd in a highly disturbing sequence that closes the bloody circle of ambition and revenge involving the three men, which climaxes in a cemetery as Collazo, the murderer of recruit José Isabel, is seized by hallucinations in a masterful stroke with Shakespearean overtones.

All is hyperbolic and brutal in Cazals’ film. There’s rural Mexico plunging into ignorance and poverty, voiceless people that barely have a presence: the old mother carried here and there by her son, Sergeant Collazo, as his own fetishized cross; peasants striving to enlist in the army, following the officer’s steps seen as a swarm of huge, fleeting hats; a young couple listening in ecstatic wonder to the priest’s jerky rhetoric; the grieving father who knocks at the church to bury his little son, and the serene look of a very young mother, a sort of native Madonna, witnessing drunken Collazo collapse at her feet after a failed approach.

On the other hand, a debased army imposes its own law in a world of rascals and loose women (whose tough pragmatism and vitality runs opposite to the deadly aura surrounding most male characters). They all meet in a symbolic banquet on a colourful boat named “The Bad Life”, a powerful image mixing kitsch, arrogance, hypocrisy and mystification with more than one nod to the present.

Felipe Cazals’ The Citrillo’s Turns could well deserve a tiny corner at the bottom of those big frescoes on the Mexican Revolution, if only because of its accomplished and oblique portrayal of lowlife in a world on the verge of a radical turn.