Last weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que Viva Mexico! for the first time while Chicago’s Mexican folk ensemble Sones de Mexico complemented the avant-garde film with a unique score. Eisenstein was an innovative Soviet filmmaker considered a pioneer of montage and a great influencer to cinema. I was pleasantly blown away by the majestic film that is a mixture of cinematic narrative, documentary and a sort of ethnography of my motherland. Read on for the three reasons why this pelicula should be added to your list of odd & obscure movies to watch. If you don’t already have a list, I highly suggest you start one!
First of all, let’s start by stating and celebrating that this movie is weird. It is a black and white avant-garde motion picture with elements of surrealism and expressionism. The film aims to depict Mexico’s rich + complex history and culture through a cinematographic mural. What this means is that the movie focuses on visual aesthetics rather than a plot. There were no actors used, only real people. In Eisenstein’s vision, the film was to be composed of six parts: a prologue, epilogue and four main parts to depict an important part of Mexico’s history and culture. These are the parts and the goal of each:
- Prologue – showcases the ancient Mayas, their art and architecture
- Sandunga – portrays life in Tehuantepec and follows the courtship and marriage of Concepción + Abundio
- Fiesta – depicts the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe during December 12 and the popularity of bullfighting during colonialism
- Maguey – tells the story of Sebastian + Maria during the Porfirato era and the feudalism system of haciendas
- Soldadera – was meant to depict the story of the Mexican revolution with an emphasis on the soldiers’ wives that traveled and fought with them (This portion was never filmed)
- Epilogue – showcases the traditional Day of the Dead celebrations
Unfortunately, Eisenstein never completed this magnificent project. The footage was recorded during 1931 and many versions were created but the closest version to the envisioned ¡Que Viva Mexico! would have to wait 50 years to be released.
The film was shot during the 30s by Eisenstein and produced by writer Upton Sinclair. Eisenstein had a fascination with Mexico that escalated when muralist Diego Rivera visited Russia in 1927. They became fast friends and Rivera infected Eisenstein with a deep curiosity to see the wonders of ancient Aztec and Mayan art + architecture firsthand. So inspired was Eisenstein when he finally arrived in Mexico, he wanted to dedicate parts of his film to renowned Mexican artists including Rivera. In a letter to Sinclair, he wrote:
However, his epic vision proved to transcend reality. As in the project was never finished because money and time ran out. Apparently, the agreement was for the filmmaker to shoot and edit a short, think one hour or so. The producers wanted the project to be completed within a few months but Eisenstein took much longer than anticipated and like most great artists, proved difficult to work with. When Sinclair & Co. finally put a halt to the project, they found themselves with 30-50 hours’ worth of film! Eisenstein had to return to Russia because his visa had expired and the Soviet Union wouldn’t allow the footage to enter the country, so the director couldn’t edit his own work. The Sincalairs eventually found other artists to edit the copious amounts of film to make multiple short movies and it was until 1979 that Grigori Alexandrov, who accompanied Eisenstein on his Mexican sojourn to help make the movie, edited the footage into the fragmented ¡Que Viva Mexico!
In case you didn’t already notice, this movie tries to cover A LOT of history in over 2 hours. From pre-Columbian, to Spanish colonialism, to feudalism, to revolutionary times and finally to the present modern era of the 30s, Eisenstein’s vision was a grand undertaking. I’m saying that the context provided in here can be overwhelming but rewarding. Surely one won’t walk away an expert in Mexico a sense of the tragic history of my beloved country can be gained. As I watched and listened, I was transported to a Mexico of the past, ripe with its traditions, customs and rituals. It was interesting to view my country through an outside lens. Growing up, I was part of a lot of customs depicted in the film like the Day of the Dead rituals, the Virgen de Guadalupe celebrations and such. I remembered when I used to be part of the Matachin dancers to perform ritual dances conveying the Spanish conquest. To think now of the heavy meaning behind a cultural dance I was part of is crazy. When I was young, I didn’t really question the origin of my daily life, not fully understanding how fortunate I was to be part of such a rich cultural heritage… It was a cool experience viewing my background through an artistic and abstract viewfinder.
Do you actually have a list of ‘to watch’ movies? Because if not, I can provide plenty of recommendations. Seriously. What are your thoughts of this movie? Do you think it might be too much? Would you be interested in watching? Why/why not? Any recommendations for similar films?