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The Semblance Structure of Cruelty in Felipe Cazals' 'Canoa'

Canoa teeters between an overriding aestheticization of violence and a perverse registering of the real.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory

Director: Felipe Cazals
Cast: Enrique Lucero, Salvador Sánchez, Arturo Alegro
Distributor: Criterion
US release date: 2017-03-14

I will admit a prejudice from the very outset of this review and if my readers feel that this invalidates my take on this film, I will accept that judgment (although, as will become clear, I positively assess the film despite this initial prejudice). I have always been suspicious of claims that recommend -- or worse, justify -- a film because it's based on a true story. This is a favorite gambit of my stepfather and as much as I admire that man and enjoy his company, this particular ploy of his has always driven me a bit batty.

I can't remember what film it was that first led him to introduce this strategy. I think it was Black Hawk Down (2001), but that seems too late in our relationship. I feel like he started with this maneuver nearly from the moment I met him. And, of course, as soon as he figured out that it rankled me, he had recourse to it at every possible occasion. At any rate, I know it was a film I hated (and boy did I hate Black Hawk Down).

Whatever film it was, we got to the end of it and I released an exasperated sigh. Certain films just bother me -- not merely in the sense that I feel they were a waste of my time (and that certainly applies to Black Hawk Down) but also in the sense that I am disturbed by their disingenuousness, their penchant to pull your strings in order to cajole you into accepting a premise that is false on its face, the way they dress up a view of the world as patriotism or rational or heroic or moving that you ought to find repugnant.

I don't think my stepfather particularly loved the film but it had entertained him enough that he found my acerbic reaction questionable. “What's the problem?" he asked. Wrong question, of course. I unleashed a barrage of complaints ranging from the political to the ethical to the aesthetic. He listened with an air of confused amusement. “Yeah, okay," came the rejoinder, “but you do realize it's based on a true story, right?" I admit it was a decent riposte insofar as it flabbergasted me. My stepfather specializes in a certain brand of non-sequitur and this one has nearly become his '80s sitcom catchphrase.

If I find a film odious or dull or stupid, how on earth is knowing that it's based on reality going to redeem it and miraculously change my point of view? I always wonder what my stepfather thinks my response ought to be at that point: “Oh, really? Well… that changes everything. Black Hawk Down is the greatest film since Battleship Potemkin!" The fact is that reality itself is often odious, dull, and stupid (sometimes all three at once).

Art has always had a vexed relationship with reality. By definition (and etymologically), art is not reality; it's artificial. As Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin never tired of asserting: art relies upon a semblance structure for its mode of being. Art is a form of appearance that recognizes itself as appearance. There's a play here on Kantian thought wherein the world is divided between the noumenal (how things are in themselves) and the phenomenal (how things are to our perception and understanding -- in other words, appearances). Whereas with most things in the world, we are confronted by appearances that we take for something real (we don't see a dog and think we are just seeing an appearance, we think we see the dog as such), with art we recognize that this thing that we are seeing exists as a kind of semblance.

This is easily seen in representational art. You see a Fragonard painting of a charming couple in an idyllic setting, the young man gently pushing the young woman on a swing, and you recognize it's a representation, an appearance, not the thing as such. Since at least Aristotle, Western thought has recognized that part of the enjoyment of art is bound up in the fact that it's not real, but mere semblance. Aristotle, for instance, claimed that this explains why we can admire paintings of corpses but if we happened upon one in real life we would be repulsed. Different rules apply to art because of its semblance structure.

And yet art, as Benjamin and Adorno further realize, and this applies to film in particular, has a documentary quality. It critically registers aspects of reality. Take a simple example. Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will gives us an incredible and disturbing insight into the era of the Nazi regime as well as into the official ideology of the Third Reich, its penchant for an aestheticized politics, its concern for an order that transformed authoritarian control into a kind of sublime and terrible artwork. And yet this is not simply documentation. Even the most rigorous documentary film is not simply documentation.

In the case of Triumph of the Will (1935) or in the case of the most scrupulous documentary, the director is still framing the subject. We don't have full access to the material here. It's being culled, shaped, interpreted. The mere acts of editing, or framing, or focusing on one part of a scene while neglecting another are acts of interpretation. At the same time, the most outrageously ludicrous attempt to thwart reality or the most outlandishly imaginative bit of science fiction will nonetheless have some purchase on (and for Adorno, take some critical stance upon) reality. Art can never escape reality, but it can never become reality, either.

So, in this sense, all art has a bearing on reality, a sometimes hidden and sometimes obvious connection to the world outside its frame. But no artwork simply is a reflection of reality in an untouched, purely objective manner. All films purporting to present reality are bound up in the ineluctable semblance structure of all art. This leads me back to my suspicion regarding films “based on a true story", or at least to my suspicion of those who would marshal that fact as a means of aesthetic justification. Art either succeeds or fails as art, not as a documentation of reality.

I found myself considering these issues while viewing a film that I had never seen but knew was based on an actual event: Felipe Cazals's Canoa: A Shameful Memory of 1976. Canoa is reputed to be one of the most important Mexican films and one of the most important political films of the '70s (a great, if uneven, decade for political films).

Canoa tracks the true story of a group of university employees from Puebla who take a half-hour bus trip out to the small village of San Miguel Canoa to hike the La Malinche mountain. When they arrive in the village, a torrential downpour prevents them from immediately going on their hike. They seek accommodation for the night. This proves rather difficult. There's no hotel. They are told by the owner of a small diner to ask the priest (Enrique Lucero) if they can stay at the church. Two of them go to inquire, but they are refused. They meet the local police captain (Juan Ángel Martínez) who seems as though he will allow them to stay in a municipal building but he, too, turns them away inexplicably. They return to the diner and attempt to rent a room there only to be refused yet again.

A stranger invites them to a local home where they chat with the owner who regales them with bitter tales concerning the hold that the priest has over the entire village -- not only spiritually but financially as well. What's worse, the priest has a persecution complex. This is in 1968 and with the student rebellions in full swing, the priest is convinced that communists will soon come to town to raise a red and black flag in the village, steal away the people's religion (it's never made clear how that would work), destroy the statue of St. Michael, and then murder the priest himself.

It doesn't take long before he comes to consider these young men the realization of his premonitions and he convinces his many rapt followers to believe that this is indeed the case. The villagers gather, collect torches and weapons, and march out to the home of the discontented resident who offered lodging to the university employees. The young men inside the house are at first blithely unaware that the increasingly raucous noise they hear outdoors pertains to them. They take the gunfire to be fireworks -- until it's far too late to escape. The last third of the movie portrays the horrific attack of the villagers on the unarmed young men, the savage brutality of the assault, and the depraved acts of people who have clearly lost their sense of humanity while in the throes of a murderous frenzy brought on by misdirected and paranoid religious zeal.

Now, unlike Black Hawk Down, this is not a bad film, by any means. It's well constructed, well-acted, and well shot. The scenes of violence are, at times, difficult to watch but beautifully choreographed. One moment, in particular, grabs the attention: just as the mob of villagers is about to march out to the home where the young men are staying, there's an aerial view that reveals one large influx of people with torches moving toward a larger group that's momentarily stationary but then responds to their encroachment; the entire mass of vicious humanity seems to roil about itself for a moment before it heaves itself forward in pursuit of its prey. It's mesmerizing to see and disgusting to contemplate.

Canoa is shot in a faux-documentary style that actually bifurcates into two differing documentary approaches. On the one hand, there's the crime documentary style -- complete with black screens that feature the time of the next scene, which were so reminiscent (before the fact, of course) of Law and Order that I kept intoning “Duh duh" to myself whenever they cropped up. This documentary charts the progress of the crime itself and the news reporting surrounding that crime.

The other documentary style is more akin to '60s television documentaries on exotic locales, where you can hear the whirring of the camera, you see the local sights, and you hear interviews with local residents. In this case, the only person interviewed is one fellow with a characteristic hat (Salvador Sánchez). He's the epitome of the unreliable narrator, providing some insight into the life of the village but always with a sort of ominous portentousness, promising the eruption of suppressed tensions. Whereas the typical “travel film" waxes enthusiastic about the simple innocence of a rural culture, our narrator discusses the role of poverty and alcoholism within the village. When the town boils over, he too participates and indeed looks right into the camera to remind us that he is our conduit (our only one, really) into an understanding of why these atrocities are taking place. He's not a removed observer, he's a symptom of the village's disease.

What's remarkable about Canoa that doesn't seem to apply to so many other films that are renowned for being “based on a true story" is that it plays with the boundary between semblance and the real. The documentary elements of the film are obviously fake, nearly a parody of actual crime and tourist documentaries. The scenes of violence teeter between an overriding aestheticization (ala Riefenstahl) and a perverse registering of the real. At times the scene is perfectly framed, made into a memorable picture (like the scene with the swirling mob described above) and at other times the filming is almost casual (seeming almost like found footage of a horrible event).

And yet this winking acknowledgment of the semblance structure of the film doesn't make it less horrific but rather more so. It confers upon the actual event a kind of surreal and terrifying irreality. The statistical sufferings of the villagers offered up by the man in the hat no more explain the twisted behavior of the inhabitants than the bitter accusations of the homeowner against the corrupt priest. There's no accounting for human acts of inhumanity. There's no way to explain away cruelty, to justify it as human frailty, aberrance, or a marker of innate evil.

Cruelty of this magnitude is not so much a condition as it is an event that irrupts into the lives of the unsuspecting and undeserving victims. If the notion of the real is predicated on observable and predictable behavior, natural law, then actual reality seems to fly in the face of such assumptions -- particularly when human beings are involved. The real continually slips toward the irreal; reality becomes a horrible semblance.

Like all semblance, the reality of cruelty always presents an “as if", an assumption that things could always be otherwise. What's truly abominable about the semblance nature of cruelty is that we cannot help but wonder why the “as if" had to go the way it did. Why must one suffer when there were other possibilities? If Adorno claims that all art is the “coded language of suffering", then perhaps it's fair to say that cruelty is the reverse face of art. Cruelty codes the language of suffering that art expresses.

Canoa is not worth seeing because it's based on real events (don't listen to my stepfather if he tells you that it is). Canoa is worthy of our attention because it inhabits the liminal space between the real and the irreal, and thus reveals that reality was semblance all along.


Criterion Collection presents a director-approved Blu-Ray edition of Canoa: A Shameful Memory to marks its 40th anniversary. The extras include an introduction by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and a conversation between filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Y tu mamá también (2001), and Cazals. To my mind, the item of greatest interest, beside the film itself, is the essay included in the booklet by film scholar Fernanda Solórzano. While many of the essays Criterion commissions for these releases are lackluster at best, this one is both informative and engaging.


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