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SAN SEBASTIAN — In “Chicogrande,” veteran Mexican director Felipe Cazals creates an auteur Western that draws specific parallels between the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1916 to capture the revolutionary Pancho Villa and recent geopolitical events. The weight of this heavy message undercuts the strength of an intermittently captivating film that tells history passionately from a Mexican viewpoint. Apart from its topicality, the film has an epic quality that could work for the Spanish language market, though its somber tone will limit general appeal.
Underscoring its classic roots, film opens on a lone rider galloping across a majestic Western landscape to the sound of Murcof’s foreboding music. We’re south of the border, and a wounded Pancho Villa (Alejandro Calva) has just tried but failed to invade New Mexico. Now the U.S. government has launched a manhunt to bring him back to Washington dead or alive, and has sent 5,000 soldiers into Mexican territory to look for him.
In an attempt to get information out the locals, they torture suspects and terrorize the population with their scorched earth tactics. But with the silent collaboration of the poor, hungry peons, Villa hides out in a mountain cave and escapes capture.
Talk about historical parallels. Cazals has hit upon a biggie. The similarities to Osama Bin Laden and Afghanistan are striking, which is exactly why it seems unnecessary for the screenplay to underline them continually. The effect is counterproductive, and many viewers are likely to dismiss the film as a gringo-go-home, anti-American tract.
Undoubtedly the U.S. Army role in Mexico presaged a long, unhappy history of intervention in Latin America and beyond. As one character jibes, on watching the soldiers finally head home, “Don’t worry, they’ll be back.”
The sadistic army officer in charge, Major Butch Fenton (Daniel Martinez) speaks in contemporary American idiom and seems to have stepped out of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, rather than the Old West. His racism, cruelty and fondness for torturing prisoners is contrasted to the anguish of a conscience-stricken army doctor (Juan Manuel Bernal), whose pride in his country sinks lower each day.
“Our presence here is a tactical error,” he writes home to New York. Bernal is more convincing than Martinez, but both these American roles are flat and stereotyped.
In contrast, the Mexicans have real faces, which the camera probes deeply. Pulling the story together is the strong central perf by Damian Alcazar as Villa’s trusted lieutenant Chicogrande, who is sent along with a cocky young recruit (Ivan Rafael Gonzalez) to find a doctor for the injured leader. Riding into town, controlled by American forces, he shows great courage and savvy, yet he’s capable of murder when the need arises. In the dramatic final sequence on horseback, he reveals who he is and why he is loyal to Villa.
The film is firmly on the side of the peasants, but doesn’t whitewash anyone. A sympathetically portrayed Mexican army officer, for example, recalls hanging twenty of Villa’s followers, even though he admired their bravery. “I was just following orders,” he says in shame.
Their many bodies, dangling from trees in the forest, is a sickening sight. Major Fenton’s final atrocity echoes this scene.
This unusual Western ends on the same thoughtful dark note with which it began, redeeming some inert moments that spin out the running time.
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (In Competition)
Production companies: Sierra Alta Films, Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia, Fondo de Inversiony Estimulo al Cine
Cast: Damian Alcazar, Daniel Martinez, Juan Manuel Bernal, Ivan Rafael Gonzalez, Tenoch Huerta, Patricia Reyes Spindola
Director: Felipe Cazals
Screenwriter: Felipe Cazals
Producers: Fernando Gou, Gerardo Barrera
Director of photography: Damian Garcia
Production designer: Lorenza Manrique
Costumes: Mayra Juarez
Editor: Oscar Figueroa
No rating, 100 minutes
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