New York Film Festival: Revolución

An omnibus collection of short films held together by a location-based theme, Revolución initially brings to mind such recent collaborative projects as Paris, Je T’aime, New York, I Love You, and Tokyo! Instead of just love of a city, however, the stories of Revolución share much more specific themes. They’re held together by producer Pablo Cruz’s loose conceptual question: “What does the Mexican Revolution mean to you today?” Inspired by the centennial celebration of the uprising-turned-civil-war and eventual establishment of what has since been the political system of Mexico, each filmmaker who contributed a piece took a unique approach, but it’s perhaps more interesting to explore what these pieces have in common than the ways in which they differ.

In addition to Helmer Cruz, directors Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Fernando Eimbcke, Mariana Chenillo, and Patricia Riggen took the stage for a Q&A after the film’s New York Film Festival screening, to an audience peopled with a significant proportion of often-elderly Spanish-speakers. According to the filmmakers on hand, the centennial celebrations are so ubiquitous in Mexico right now that it’s like a year-round holiday, although it’s doubtful most people know exactly what they’re celebrating. This skepticism of blind patriotism is one common thread in many of the shorts, particularly encouraging in light of the fact that this project was in large part funded by the Mexican government. The filmmakers were clear that the government had no creative input on the project, which in their words criticizes it openly, telling the story of the spirit and promise of a revolution which may not have been completely delivered upon.

Another common thread among several of the ten-minutes-or-less shorts is the idea of diaspora. In Patricia Riggen’s “Beautiful and Beloved”, an American-born young woman is reluctantly forced to retrace her revolutionary grandfather’s steps back to his Mexican hometown upon his death, learning about familial pride in a rural town for what looks like the first time. Later, present-day Los Angeles Latinos clash with their forefathers in Rodrigo Garcia’s mood piece “7th and Alvarado”, a slow-motion visual stunner shot in a California neighborhood which is intruded upon by the incongruous and anachronistic specter of the cavalry of the Mexican Revolution themselves.

The order in which these short films are presented (or what on an album would be called “sequencing”) was done thoughtfully, and to great effect. Beginning with a few personal stories from the points of view of children in small towns (Fernando Eimbcke’s “The Welcome Ceremony” opening the set and Gael Garcia Bernal’s “Lucio” coming up third), the segments trace a variety of experience and perspective to end up in Garcia’s aforementioned “7th and Alvarado”, drawing the a through-line of setting from a rural Mexico that has barely changed since 1910 through to urban Los Angeles and then bringing the two crashing together. Modern life is always clashing with the past in these short films, as young people struggle to reconcile evolving identities and often mobile or progressive lifestyles with familial, religious or community obligation and tradition.

The shorts range from the fairly straightforward and personal narrative, as in Diego Luna’s “Pacifico” (in which a man contemplates building on his beachfront property while trying to convince his estranged partner to let him see their young daughter), to the abstract, such as Amat Escalante’s “The Hanging Priest” (in which children are confronted with the title character in a surreal black-and-white Jodorowsky-like scene), as well as the set’s arguably most interesting piece, Carlos Reygadas’s “This Is My Kingdom”. Here, a group of community members gather for a party, which starts out civil and congenial as a picnic in the park, but slowly devolves, spinning into a hysterical Harmony Korine-like out-of-control revel in which men in lucha libre masks dance as children set fire to cars. Reygadas was unavailable, unfortunately, for this screening’s Q&A, but the other filmmakers present did not deny its possible intended significance as a metaphor for the long-term effects of the Revolution.

I don’t think it makes me an atypical American to admit that a lot of the information I get regarding international events and movements comes from fictionalized sources like film. Thus, even though I could drive myself there in about one day, and have plenty of friends who claim some degree of Mexican heritage, much of what I truly “know” about contemporary Mexico has come my way via the likes of Alejandro Iñárritu and Carlos and Alfonso Cuarón. I suppose there’s some potential critique of the failings of the US public school system to be found here, not to mention a disappointing failure in my own intellectual curiosity, but the truth is that I didn’t know much about the Mexican Revolution before this film, let alone about how Mexicans today feel about its lasting repercussions.

As embarrassing as that is to admit as a person who likes to consider herself fairly engaged and culturally sensitive, I know I can’t be the only one. So here’s hoping this film finds wide enough distribution to not only give native Mexicans something representative of their diverse experience with which they can connect, but also gives this film the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks in the knowledge and empathy base of an international audience.

RATING 8 / 10