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Looking back at now
If we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past.
This quote from John Berger comes into the picture at around the five-minute mark. It cleanly highlights the duality of the film's opening sequence: First, Black and white historical footage, accompanied by a voiceover of director Natalia Almada’s grandmother, Alicia Calles. This voiceover contains recollections, via tape recordings from the 70s, of her father: President Calles. (This makes President Calles the great-grandfather of Almada.) Second, the opening sequence introduces us to various contemporary working-class Mexicans in Mexico City as they go about their days.
El General (2009) is, on the surface, about the life of Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles. Calles assumed the presidency in 1924, and the effects of his leadership on present-day Mexico are explored in ways we expect and ways we don’t expect.
One of the ways in which the film wasn’t surprising: I expected a thoughtful rumination on the presidency of Calles, and the documentary delivered on this front. Like many Americans, my history of early 20th-century Mexico is a bit rusty. (So many assasinations. Guess how many assassinations occurred in the first half of the 20th century in Mexico. It’s probably more than whatever number you're thinking.) You’d be mistaken if you thought a documentary using the recordings of the filmmaker’s grandmother was a product of low-hanging fruit. There is a brilliance in how Grandma Calles’ ruminations are mapped to today. In one scene, she describes the adulation and the servility of the men who surround a leader and how that lack of exposure to the truth is dangerous to society. Almada relentlessly finds the best possible framing for her grandmother’s thoughts, creating a portrait of a country in flux, outside of time. The period is never the problem. Concentrated power is the problem. Incredibly, Almada made this film in 2008. Maybe the writing was on the wall.
Even Grandma Calles complaining about one of “Hearst’s papers” and how it reported on events of the time brings to mind similar complaints of today about any of Murdoch’s ventures. To be clear, I had to take much of what Alicia Calles had to say about her father in the opposite direction of what was meant not to feel like this was a loving portrait of a caudillo (strong-man). This, however, is the intention of the film’s thesis regarding the nature of history, retrospect, and time.
One of the ways in which this documentary surprised me was how it threaded art into the understanding of how history plays out. The paintings of Frida Kahlo or the films of Sergei Eisenstein and Elia Kazan are incorporated seamlessly into the film. At its best, art transmutes the enormity of a culture’s thoughts and feelings into something legible. It’s a magnifying glass that creates a hot burning spot out of broad sunlight. El General understands this, drawing even on Sans Soleil (1983) to ensure it gets its point across. Take, for example, one scene from Viva Zapata! (1952) which shows us a clip of Marlon Brando as Mexican Rancher Emiliano Zapata giving a stirring speech to the men around him. “You always look for leaders in strong men without faults? There aren’t any!” Jump cut to protestors marching in the streets shouting, “If Zapata were alive, he’d be on our side!”
The film opens with a quote from Berger, but shortly after this opening, we’re given perhaps a better quote from the director herself that sums up the thesis of a film in which a woman attempts to understand history via another woman’s attempt to understand history. It expresses how history can feel like an infinite game of telephone, left to the living to interpret and, hopefully, do good with. Or put better by Almada in the context of El General:
“I am left with the sound of the tape, which runs over the present.”
Written and Directed by Natalia Almada
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
And we’re back! Women’s History Month on Movie Night resumes this week, and if you missed the reason for the hiatus, our 1-year anniversary celebration last week, you can check it out here.
You could call this week’s recommendation a “deep cut,” though I suspect it will be more readily available in the future. In the meantime, you can rent it here. I mentioned above my surprise that this was made in 2008. Eerily portentous, sadly.