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Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, ¡Que Viva México! (filmed in 1931, but released in 1979) is a documentary narrative mix that tells a centuries-long story of the history of Mexico. Split into 6 parts, the prologue and “Sandunga” introduce pre-Columbian Mexico, “Fiesta” represents the period of Spanish colonization, “Maguey” represents the oppression of the Porfirio Diaz regime, “Soldadera” represents the Mexican Revolution, and the epilogue focuses on Mexico’s present and future.
As I detailed in last week’s essay on São Paulo, A Sinfonia da Metrópole, Soviet cinema had a firm place in the foundation of Latin American cinema. Though Dziga Vertov’s style would be used and changed to fit a vastly different ideology in some Latin American films of the era, it would be Sergei Eisenstein’s journey that would prove to have a lasting effect on the continent even if it was not released until the late 1970s. Thanks to the availability of the script and Eisenstein’s many notes on the subject, his film became especially influential to directors like Gabriel Figueroa and other filmmakers in the militant phase of New Latin American cinema. Still, using the auteur theory to analyze this film is a difficult and nearly impossible task because the film that we see today was constructed years after he died by fellow director and friend, Grigori Alexandrov. One of the only things we can be truly certain of is that the making of this film was fraught with obstacles.
Initially, Eisenstein had been invited to Hollywood to work and it was there that Charlie Chaplin introduced him to the famous socialist author, Upton Sinclair. Persuaded by Eisenstein’s longstanding interest in Mexico, Sinclair decided to fund his Mexican project and give him free rein. But after three months had run out with Eisenstein still not close to producing a finished product, Sinclair withdrew funding. Later he explained, “What first led us to distrust him was that when the money was spent he wrote to us that we’d have to send more or we’d have no picture… He kept that up, over and over, and we realized that he was simply staying in Mexico at our expense to avoid having to go back to Russia.” As a result, Sinclair and Eisenstein fell out and Sinclair kept the film, releasing some pieces of the film as various short films.
In the Soviet Union, Eisenstein fell out with Alexandrov and later even Stalin. He made far fewer films and some of his work was even confiscated by the state. When asked years after the making of ¡Que Viva México! why he hadn’t directed a major film since Jan Leyda recalls that “he gave me the most genuinely anguished look I ever saw on his face and shouted at me: ‘What do you expect me to do? How can there be a new film when I haven’t given birth to the last one?’ And he clutched his belly with an equally painful gesture.”
Even with all of these events that affected the outcome of the film, it is still powerful and direct in its goals and ideas. This is because Eisenstein used two pieces of work, one from his world, and the other from this foreign land, to create a unique and groundbreaking film. Before coming to Mexico, Eisenstein had longed to make a film adaptation of Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital, and its thesis of historical materialism, and when he came to Mexico he was struck by the fact that the different modes of production described in Das Kapital coexisted in Mexico. This coupled with his friendship with Diego Rivera led him to his famous mural “The History of Mexico”, which inspired a distinct structure for his film.
More than any of Eisenstein’s Soviet efforts, this film put this Marxist narrative theory into practice. According to Hegel’s dialectic method of historical and philosophical progress, he postulates (1) a beginning proposition called a thesis, (2) a negation of that thesis called the antithesis, and (3) a synthesis whereby the two conflicting ideas are reconciled to form a new proposition.
In the film, the initial thesis is in the episode of “Sandunga,” which would correspond to an undeveloped mode of production based on simple sustenance. The subsequent antithesis in the twin episodes of “Fiesta” and “Maguey,” which would correspond respectively to the periods of colonialism and republican liberalism, when Mexican society was transformed into a system that sutured different modes of production such as capitalism, feudalism, and slavery. Finally, the synthesis post-Revolution shows the country transformed once again with a society now based on solidarity, freedom, and workers’ control of the means of production.
None of his Soviet films weave different characters, narrative styles, and time periods so well. And according to Eisenstein, this was something that was inherent to Mexican culture. Take the sarape, the striped blanket that is very common in Mexico. As Eisenstein puts it, “So striped and violently contrasting are the cultures in Mexico running next to each other and at the same time being centuries away . . . we took the contrasting independent adjacency of its violent colors as the motif for constructing our film: 6 episodes following each other.”
His prologue establishes this film as one that is not static. Like the sarape, the tapestry of Mexican history is vibrant, intertwined, and continuous. In his establishing shots, Eisenstein displays old Mayan temples in the backdrop as he profiles the current citizens of Mexico. Their faces are much the same as their ancestors who are etched into the walls of these architectural masterpieces. Past is quite literally prologue.
Fusing the sarape-like nature of history with Eisenstein’s filmmaking skills he had mastered thousands of miles away, Eisenstein creates the best example of ideational montage. In ideational montage, two separate images are brought together and their juxtaposition gives rise to an idea that shows how they are linked, rather like the tenor and vehicle in a vivid metaphor. In the Maguey section, just after Sebastián learns that María has been raped, the camera cuts to the landowner who – from the balcony – orders celebrations to continue. Shots of the drunk party revelers drinking pulque and having it drip from their lips are interspersed with images of pigs eating off the floor, and flies buzzing around the drink, a juxtaposition that underlines the brutishness of the people at the fiesta. These images are extremely compelling and thanks to Eisenstein’s hostility to sound and other methods which would make traditional narrative easier, we are left with experimental and thought-provoking shots.
These novellas are also not static images unto themselves. They intertwine symbolically with the other stories and time periods even if they are very different. In the “Fiesta” novella, Eisenstein shows villagers celebrating the day of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe. The peasants reenact the crucifixion of Christ but instead of wood for crucifixes, they use the maguey. Spanish colonization and its religious effects seem to be utterly masochistic. To contrast, in the following novella where a young peasant boy gets revenge on the upper classes, he and his co-conspirators die as Christ-like martyrs. Symbols, like Mexico’s history, get jumbled. Aztec religious temples are converted to Catholic ones and Catholic festivals are infiltrated by Aztec symbolism making the narrator question if the festivities are for the Virgin of Guadalupe or an even older deity.
Up until the very end, the film remains faithful to the outline that Diego Rivera put forth in his mural. Eisenstein adopts the mural’s representation of Mexican history in three parts, whereby a side panel represents an idealized Aztec society before the arrival of the Spaniards, a massive central mural depicts key episodes from the conquest all the way to the Revolution, and a second side panel on the opposite end portrays contemporary Mexico. However, he differs in his view of the future. The third part of Diego Rivera’s mural explicitly denounces the authoritarianism of the post-Revolutionary governments.
The mural, for example, shows government police in gas masks beating and firing upon striking workers in front of tanks with crosses that morph into swastikas. This is a far cry from Eisenstein’s epilogue. After “Soldaderas”, an unfilmed segment initially made to celebrate the women fighters of the revolution, Eisenstein depicts a “Dia de los Muertos” celebration. The Mexican people laugh at death, the rich are depicted as skeletal relics and the last shot shows a smiling boy who the narrator suggests could be a future Soldado. But Eisenstein is not a naive man. He was aware of the injustices going on in Mexico.
Eisenstein himself wrote of the ending that, “It is not our intent to limit the ending of the film to a sampling of how Mexico has conquered contemporary civilization. . . . [T]he social principle of life, which is affirmation, will have to keep on fighting for a very long time against the forces of obscurantism.” Maybe Rivera did not believe Mexico could change, but Eisenstein did and it’s hard to argue with him. In this land where the ancient kingdoms lived along with Spanish colonizers, paganism lives amongst catholicism, why can’t freedom come to this vibrant land?