J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

SIFF ’12: The Last Christeros

One of the Twentieth Century’s bloodiest assaults on religious freedom happened in the western hemisphere.  It was perpetrated by “revolutionary” socialist president Plutarco Calles, whose iron-fisted anti-clerical policies inspired a real grassroots revolution.  By the 1930’s an uneasy and imperfect peace had been brokered, but scattered bands of Cristero resistance fighters held out as best they could.  One of the final squads grapples with their destiny in Matías Meyer’s The Last Christeros (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival.

Mexico is still a land of wide vistas John Ford could love, but it is steadily closing in on the Cristero remnants.  Pursued by a company of Federales, Col. Florencio Estrada’s troops are running low on everything, including bullets.  Word reaches them of an amnesty, which some of the men are willing to consider.  However, Estrada has been down that road before.  Calles had violated the terms of truces before and the period of his unelected “Maximato” was still underway.  Though he misses his wife and daughters, Estrada has long since realized he will meet his end through this war, one way or another.

To establish the stakes of the Cristero revolution, Meyer opens the film with the 1969 oral history recording of Francisco Campos, who very well may have been the last Cristero.   However, that is about as deeply as the film delves into the political, historical, and religious significance of the civil war.  Instead, Last Christeros (for some reason, the international title carries the Anglicized “h,” while most references to the Cristeros maintain the original spelling) is an impressionistic depiction of the trying conditions endured by the weary freedom fighters.  Theirs is not an existential life though.  Rather, they live for a purpose.

Though the ensemble consists largely of neophyte actors, they all look convincingly gaunt and weathered.  Alejandro Limon is particularly haunting as the dedicated (and/or resigned to his fate) Estrada.  Yet, the picture’s defining work is that of cinematographer Gerardo Barroso, who creates painterly-like tableau of the rugged terrain and hardscrabble villages the Cristeros silently trudge through.  Galo Duran’s evocative soundtrack also helps set an appropriately wistful mood.

For those thinking the Cristero revolt would also readily lend itself to a more traditional historical drama take heart—Andy Garcia rides into theaters with For Greater Glory on June 8th.  This mini-boomlet of interest in the Cristeros is actually quite timely.  It reminds us of the price many have paid for liberty, in an election year.  If not exactly a work of advocacy cinema, Meyer certainly respects the Cristeros’ sacrifices.  Recommended for open minded cineastes, The Last Christeros screens tomorrow (5/21), Wednesday (5/23), and the Wednesday following (5/30) as part of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

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