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In 1909, Emiliano Zapata, a well-born but penniless Mexican Mestizo from the southern state of Morelos, comes to Mexico City to complain that their arable land has been enclosed, leaving them only in the barren hills. His expressed dissatisfaction with the response of the President Diaz puts him in danger, and when he rashly rescues a prisoner from the local militia he becomes an outlaw. Urged on by a strolling intellectual, Fernando, he supports the exiled Don Francisco Madero against Diaz, and becomes the leader of his forces in the South as Francisco 'Pancho' Villa is in the North. Diaz flees, and Madero takes his place; but he is a puppet president, in the hands of the leader of the army, Huerta, who has him assassinated when he tries to express solidarity for the men who fought for him. Zapata and Villa return to arms, and, successful in victory, seek to find a leader for the country. Unwillingly, Zapata takes the job, but, a while later, he responds to some petitioners from his ... Written by
surprising performances, touching direction, good (not masterpiece) screen writing
At first he doesn't look much like we remember him - Marlon Brando appears as his Mexican Emiliano Zapata with a stern face at the Mexico Priesidente demanding, simply, land rights and making sure boundaries can be drawn. His name is circled on the President's desk, not a good sign, and from here on in Zapata is fighting and fighting (what one character says is as simple as it is - it's all he knows) so that the farmers can have their land, as opposed to time and patience, to grow their corn with.
When Brando first appears as this revolutionary figure he doesn't quite look like himself, and at the same time does very much, and it's disarming. I didn't buy it entirely in the first scene... and then the scenes kept coming, and Brando, playing Zapata as stubborn and headstrong and without much in way of a sense of humor as a leader as a General (and rightfully so as revolutionary figures tend to be, see Che for more details), is spot on. It's worthy of the rest of his oeuvre at the time, if not quite up to the monolithic status of Streetcar and Waterfront then at least as good if not better than the underrated The Wild One. This is vintage Brando every step of the way, absorbing us in this figure who reminds us all why it's necessary to have such heroes - but also the lacerating side of the double-edged sword where-in those in power will do all they can to destroy the hero. That and, well, revolutions and movements of ideas amongst people end up turning things pretty damn bittersweet; just look at the very end for that, as four peasants talk of Zapata's status as an idea as well as a man.
Viva Zapata! presents Mexico in some fresh and amazing cinematography, sturdy and sometimes clever and heartfelt direction from Elia Kazan, always best with his actors (even Anthony Quinn who again proves why he was best as taking on an ethnicity and making it believable, if only up to a point as his powerhouse turn shows here), and some very interesting writing from John Steinbeck. The script sometimes takes its turns and movements that don't make it quite flow as well as it would in a book; individual scenes are knock-outs, mini-masterpieces of words exchanged with underlying meaning or trying to find the meaning in how people can persevere, or not as it turns out (one such scene I loved is when Zapata has been installed as the President- as Pancho Villa says there's "no one else"), and the farmers he says he knows comes and demands the same things he did once before, but at a personal price.
There's lots of great things like that, or just the uncomfortable but true rapore between Zapata and his future-wife's family when they talk in metaphors. If only Steinbeck didn't sometimes jerk the story ahead without some warning (it will be hard to explain, you just have to see it to understand, though this may have more to do with the direction than writing, more research is needed for this assumption) it would be unstoppable as a classic. As it stands though Viva Zapata! is an essential chronicle of a rebel with a cause, an honest man of principles who tried to do too much good in a country where it just wasn't possible. Or, perhaps, things like this just aren't possible; one can see the parallels and maybe even find this to be like a condensed version of Soderbergh's Che in taking a sobering look at the sweet highs and sobering lows of rising up against the powers that be (and yes, this is quite the leftist movie, all the more odd considering it's John McCain's favorite film!)
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