Mexico, the beginning of the 20th century; in the times of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, the film does not surrender to the temptation of a meticulous historical chronicle. Rather, the ...
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Mexico, the beginning of the 20th century; in the times of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, the film does not surrender to the temptation of a meticulous historical chronicle. Rather, the film's scope is deliberately narrow; instead of a grandiose, revolutionary epic, it remains closer to a chamber piece, a sort of grotesque, colloquially exuberant and highly cinematic portrayal of decadence.
The film is set in Mexico in 1903, during the final decade of the brutal stability brought about by the Díaz dictatorship, and follows a sergeant, his subordinates and various associated characters, such as Melba, the sergeant's partner. It is perhaps tempting to view the characters and the dynamics of the film in terms of historical events, in which case the message sent is a rather pessimistic and fatalistic one. To escape or at least alleviate the misery of their lives, some of the characters turn to hedonism, taking what pleasures they can get; others seem to at least find some structure in their lives in blind obedience to authority. Others do undermine authority in small ways, but for their own personal motives and usually in a criminal fashion, motivated for instance by greed and resentment, or by stupidity and pride. There is no sense of any wider social movement or awareness, which is perhaps in itself, if we view it as a historical allegory, a devastating critique of the Revolution that overthrew Díaz a few years later. A significant scene in this sense is when there is some recruiting to fight against the Yaqui people, who had revolted, to which the regime had reacted by sponsoring a full-blown genocide. Not a single character questions it in any way, or even takes much of an interest apart from discussing the applicable wages, apart from one soldier who is incensed against the Yaqui.
The acting is excellent, the recreation of the time and place rings very true, but the greatest challenge, as well as the greatest reward in this film, lies in the language. It seems to have put considerable effort into re-creating the slang of the time and place (making the original dialogue a challenge even for native speakers) and the result rings very true. The dialogues are both full of errors that reflect the uneducated background of most of the characters (some of whom are unable to sign their names; at the time, about 3/4 of the Mexican population was illiterate), and use language in a very creative, ingenious way reminiscent of Shakespeare's English (particularly some of Iago's lines in 'Othello,' for example).
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