'Brimstone & Glory': Film Review

Courtesy of Fantastic Fest
A poetic reverie about the art of explosions and those who create them.
10/27/2017

Viktor Jakovleski's doc about Mexico's fireworks capital is produced by pyrotechnics-friendly 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' director Benh Zeitlin.

In the small Mexican city of Tultepec, it seems practically every building has the word "Peligro" emblazoned across its side — a warning of danger from the manufacture or storage of fireworks, the city's main industry. Viktor Jakovleski's sometimes rapturous Brimstone & Glory takes us to Tultepec for two annual rituals that celebrate this livelihood, reveling in their spectacle and observing the days leading up to them. Though marketing materials comparing it to more extravagant big-screen dazzlers like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka could backfire, leading moviegoers to expect too much, this lovely but more intimate doc will win over many who see it. It may also inspire Stateside viewers of an adventurous bent to put the town on their list of dream travel destinations. Who wants to run with Pamplona's bulls when you can come here and risk mortal injury will bulls built of explosives?

Though it does return frequently to some of the same subjects (like a lovably eager pre-teen boy whose family is so tied up in the business he's said to have gunpowder in his blood), the picture takes an observational, in-the-mix approach; individuals aren't identified by name, and talk of the firework industry's impact takes the form of impressions rather than journalism. That is to say, we see scars and amputations, but don't hear statistics about explosions like the one last December, which killed dozens of people in the town's San Pablito Market.

Such events are inevitable given locals' casual attitude toward quality control. "We're not chemists," one man explains, saying that his recipes "aren't perfect — a handful of this, a handful of that." The garage workshops we visit aren't the kind of place most Americans would trust with buckets of explosives.

Jakovleski never seems to condescend to or judge these men, though. Instead, he gets us to marvel at them. When a lightning storm ignites one of the tall wooden "castles" of fireworks they've been building for days (some of them rising eight or 10 stories from the ground), workers climb right up into the exploding structure to contain the damage. In calmer moments, lenser Tobias von dem Borne straps a camera to a builder climbing one of these spindly things, getting some vertiginous POV footage from its top.

These towers are one element of the National Pyrotechnic Festival; another is a parade-like assembly of oversized papier-mache bulls, which shoot fireworks as they are rolled through the gathered throngs. Here, designers have more leeway, and we meet some young artists who have fun with unconventional designs.

As the time comes for those bulls to do their thing, the film's view of pyrotechnics shifts slightly. Earlier, we're treated to lush slo-mo that turns every ember a rocket produces into a dying star. Here, Jakovleski acknowledges what it's like to run around amid all those supernovas. Crews of paramedics receive their training: Anybody who comes to us with burns covering less than 30% of their body, they're told, doesn't rate a ride in an ambulance. Yikes. Medics start to greet revelers whose scalps are seared, whose noses are broken, who are blinded by chemicals. But scars are like souvenirs here, something to take home from an event that comes just once a year. And proof that an adventure that might well have killed you, didn't.

Production companies: The Department of Motion Pictures, Court 13 Pictures
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Director: Viktor Jakovleski
Producers: Casey Coleman, Affonso Goncalves, Antontio Tonitzin Gomez, Viktor Jakovleski, Dan Janvey, Erdem Karahan, Elizabeth Lodge, Kellen Quinn, Benh Zeitlin
Executive producers: Philipp Engelhorn, Caroline Kaplan, Michael Raisler
Director of photography: Tobias von dem Borne
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Composers: Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin
Venue: Fantastic Fest

In Spanish
66 minutes

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