Reflections of the Frozen Revolution By Jorge Jellinek
Three recent films presented in the Latin American Competition at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival showed different aspects of a complex reality in Mexican society. Curiously, the three works all feature elderly people as their main characters, and are parables for a revolution that went wrong.
As if nothing had changed since the disappeared Argentinean filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer reflected in the documentary Mexico: The Frozen Revolution (México: La revolución congelada, 1973), the sense of frustration and nostalgic remembrance of a lost dream is present in these three productions. Otherwise, they’re quite different in style and intentions. They were made by new directors, and show the growing diversity and richness of independent production in Mexican cinema.
With its powerful black-and-white images, Francisco Vargas Quevedo’s The Violin (El Violín, 2006) presents a renewed approach to a longstanding tradition in Latin American cinema: films with political and social commitment. Although it’s far from the pamphleteering work in the 1960s by authors like Fernando Solanas or Jorge Sanjines, it seems to pick up the torch that had almost been extinguished in these postmodern times.
It clearly differs from them in its austere, almost documentary treatment of a simple and minimal storyline. Working mostly with nonprofessional actors, and deliberately without clear points of reference to any specific time and place, it focuses upon three generations of farmers, represented by the elderly Don Plutarco (Angel Tavira), his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi), who survive by playing traditional music in the streets of a little village in a rural region. When government troops arrive to repress an insurgent movement, Genaro flees to join the guerrillas, while Don Plutarco and his grandson attempt to recover some guns and ammunition hidden by the rebels in their cornfields.
The precise and rigorous narrative grows denser when the traditional tunes, played on the violin by the one-handed old man, attract the attention of the captain in command of the repressive force. An ambiguous relationship is established between them, avoiding a simplistic formula, exposing that not all is black and white between the characters – though a final conflict seems inevitable. What emerges is the serene dignity and moral stature of this old man, whose rough and ancient visage echoes the anthropological studies of Sergei Eisenstein in Que viva Mexico!. His grandson will inherit the never-ending struggle.
This becomes quite clear in a key dialogue between Don Plutarco and Lucio:
DON PLUTARCO: Then the Gods told them to fight on their own, that their destiny was to fight. But the ambitious people had become powerful, and the true people decided to wait. And their land became dark, and desolate.
LUCIO: And then?
DON PLUTARCO: Then, the true people returned to fight for their land and their forest… because they belonged to them. Their grandparents had left the land for their children, and their children’s children. And we’ll do the same, we’ll go back.
LUCIO: And when will we go back?
DON PLUTARCO: When the good times come back.
LUCIO: And when do they come back?
DON PLUTARCO: Soon… Soon…
DON PLUTARCO: One day, you will know…
In his stark determination, Don Plutarco could have been one of the interviewed people in Francesco Taboada Tabone’s Pancho Villa: Revolution Is Not Over (Pancho Villa: La revolución no ha terminado, 2006), an engaging and informative documentary that reconstructs the life and myth of the famous revolutionary hero. Through historical footage, and the vivid testimony of witnesses and relatives that knew him and fought in the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1921), it recreates one of the turning points in Mexican history. With outstanding vitality the almost centenary participants, men and women alike, give a fresh and sometime humorous vision to this original and contradictory popular leader. They also bring back to life a time that seemed crystallized in the Official Story, and contrasts their clear dreams with the somber results in the present. As one of the old men says: “If Pancho Villa could come back, I’ll ride with him again”. In the rescue of their memories the film achieves its best results, completing the work started by the director in The Last Zapatistas (Los últimos Zapatistas, 2003), another documentary with centenary people.
There is also an old man present in Never on a Sunday (Morise En Domingo, 2006), by Daniel Gruener, an elaborate black comedy. But here the protagonist dies at the beginning, after a long illness, and as it is Sunday and nobody works in Mexico, the family can’t find anyone to cremate him. They end up using the mortuary services of an almost clandestine undertaker. Instead of using the crematory, he sells the corpse to an obscure provider of the local Faculty of Medicine, and gives the family the ashes of a dog. When this is discovered by the nervous and uneasy nephew of the old man, who was in charge of supervising the crematory procedure, it starts a frenetic race to recover the body and bury his uncle before his family discovers the problem.
In the same way the Cuban Guantanamera, by Tomás Gutierrez Alea, used the transportation of a corpse through the island as a metaphor of the bureaucratic nightmare of everyday life, here the mortuary rituals of the Mexican cultural tradition are transformed into a satirical and grotesque portrait of the corruption, indolence and frustration that seems to permeate every aspect of the social reality. The rotting body, which is never allowed to rest in peace, clearly refers to the political regime that dominated the country in the last century. And the rebellious attitude of the mortician’s daughter, who aids the nephew of the dead man in his mission, expresses the conflicted relationship of a younger generation in need of some distance from the recent past.
With originality, sharpness and a risky style, this Buñuelesque dark comedy stands as a strong commentary on an uncomfortable reality. It also opens a new path in the rich field of the new Mexican cinema.