'Epitaph' ('Epitafio'): Film Review

EPITAPH still - H 2016
Courtesy of Media Luna New Films
A minimalist epic.

Seduced by glory, three Spanish conquistadors struggle up a mountain in 16th-century Mexico.

The ambition of its directors almost matches that of its heroes in Epitaph, a historical drama that features three men, a Mexican mountain and little else. It is 1519, and the conquistadores have been sent up there on a strategic mission by Hernan Cortes, the Spaniard who led the conquest of the Aztec capital. The film’s limited budget cannot deliver the epic sweep that the story suggests, but its concerns are mostly psychological, and despite its strange dramatic inertia it does delivers much food for thought on events that, in the words of one contemporary chronicler, “silenced all talk of other wonders of the world.” A minor film on a major theme, the project has a distinctive air that could cause it to conquer festivals with a taste for the offbeat.

The memorable opening of Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God begins with dozens of ant-like men descending a jungle path. Epitaph begins with three characters trudging up a slope, an immediate indicator of the film’s budgetary restrictions. Diego de Ordaz — the only member of the team remembered by history — and his two companions, Gonzalo (Martin Roman) and Pedro (Carlos Trivino), defy the warnings of their Aztec guides (here the film is in Nahuatl) and set off up the slopes of the volcano Popocatepetl, Mexico’s second highest mountain, on what amounts to reconnaissance prior to the Spaniards’ intended invasion of the capital, Tenochtitlan.

Interestingly, the film was shot on the 18,500 foot-high Citlaltepetl, Mexico’s highest mountain but a safer volcano, making the shoot in some respects as arduous as the original journey into the unknown. Ordaz is on record as being the first man to climb the mountain.

Not much happens: The film consists of sequences of the three exhausted men unheroically struggling up slopes, interspersed with brief sections of dialogue. It looks, in fact, pretty much as it would have had Ordaz been able to take a documentary crew up the volcano with him, and there’s nothing in the way of flashback and very little character background. Indeed, it is quite an achievement to have generated so little dramatic excitement from a project that a priori would seem to be dripping in it.

The film has been made by Mexican feature debutantes Ruben Imaz and Yulene Olaizola — had Spaniards made it, it would have been open to the accusation of magnifying the deeds of the criminals who brought down a civilization. This vexed question of the Spaniards’ horrendous treatment of the natives during the south American conquest — a question that will color discussions of the movie — is dealt with only briefly, as the moral relativist Gonzalo reminds Ordaz how they ‘burned the bodies of the Indians, and cut off their noses, ears, arms, legs and testicles … all that really exists is evil’.

Ordaz dismisses such concerns, and it becomes clear that he is, in fact, anything but a hero: witness the deranged final scene if you’re in any doubt about that. In his way, he’s every bit as psychopathic as Klaus Kinski’s memorably unhinged Aguirre, just less flamboyant. He’s driven by a combination of personal ambition, the thought of posterity and unswerving religious conviction. (He denies loving gold, which perhaps makes him even more dangerous: despite the hardships, Ordaz refuses to turn back because it would mean that the natives would stop believing they were gods, a belief that was crucial to the conquest.)

As an exhausted Pedro, who doesn't seem to quite grasp how he came to be in this plight, falls by the wayside, Ordaz shows very little compassion, and indeed there’s the sense in the film that the conquests were a question of shared ambition, rather than shared humanity. Ordaz is what we would now call a religious fundamentalist, and he’s very interesting indeed.

Xabier Coronado is a non-pro who definitely has the look, with his gapped teeth and his slightly maniacal expression. But the dialogue sounds forced and recited throughout, probably the result of having to deliver context and of uncertainty about how these historical figures actually spoke. The pacing is also dodgy, with some of the trudging sequences stretched way beyond dramatic necessity.

The framing of the characters is often pulled out to long shot, to emphasize the vanity of human ambition in the face of such natural majesty. The landscapes themselves are inevitably superb, and handled to punchy dramatic effect — even if a bigger budget would have meant both more aerial shots and a more persuasive volcanic explosion. The obligatory use of natural light under difficult shooting conditions sometimes lends the visuals a bleached-out quality that borders on the colorless.

The haunting, authentically epic score by Pascual Reyes and Alejandro Otaola seems to emerge from, and to blend with, the sounds of the wind, which are pretty much omnipresent; at times it feels like an aural homage to the eerie choral and electronic sounds generated by Popol Vuh for Herzog’s masterpiece. It is a smart counterpoint to the events the film is recording, events that are mundane in themselves, but far-reaching in their historical consequences.

Production companies: Malacosa Cine, Pimienta Films, Una Comunion, Varios Lobos, Zoologia Fantastica, Zamora Films
Cast: Xabier Coronado, Martín Roman, Carlos Trivino
Directors, screenwriters: Ruben Imaz, Yulene Olaizola
Producers: Pablo Zimbron, Ruben Imaz, Yulene Olaizola
Executive producers: Lawrence Davin, Sebastian Celis, Nicolas Celis, Martin Burillo, Gerardo Moran, Paola Herrera, Enrique Rivero
Director of photography: Emiliano Fernandez
Production designer: Alisarine Ducolomb
Costume designer: Alisarine Ducolomb
Editors: Yulene Olaizola
Composers: Pascual Reyes, Alejandro Otaola
Sales: Media Luna New Films

No rating, 82 minutes