As deliriously beautiful as it is stupid, the wreckage of Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico! casts an intriguing light on the famous Soviet director's other works: is it possible that lurking beneath the surface flash and dazzle, there's really nothing of substance in those pictures? Que Viva Mexico! is the kind of disaster that lesser film makers can't recover from -- it's Eisenstein's Heaven's Gate. The fact that the director successfully completed three films after this catastrophe, and, indeed, made those movies under the oppressive supervision of Stalin, is a testament to Eisenstein's fortitude and, even, perhaps, something like genius.
After flirting with Hollywood, Eisenstein accepted funding from the American novelist Upton Sinclair and Charlie Chaplin to make an epic in Mexico. With his ace cameraman Edward Tisse and his editor Grigori Alexandrov, Eisenstein toured Mexico, shooting miles of footage that he intended to edit into a film ostensibly celebrating the Mexican Revolution, a mass movement that preceded the Bolshevik uprising by seven years and that was thought to be a sort of harbinger of events in the Mother Russia. (This story is told, albeit in a wildly idiosyncratic and unreliable manner, by Peter Greenaway in his recent Eisenstein in Guanajuato.) Eisenstein kept amassing footage with no real plan as to how it should be edited into a final picture. When he was summoned to Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein had to abandon his raw footage in Hollywood where it had been developed by the bemused studio in the hope of salvaging something from the enterprise. Since no one knew who owned the hundreds of reels of film, years of litigation ensued (Eisenstein himself died at 50 in 1948) and, during one of the cyclical thaws in US - Russian relations, the mountains of unedited footage were returned to the Soviet Union in the early seventies. Tisse was long dead, but Alexandrov, Eisenstein's editor, was very much alive -- we see him spry and ironical in the preface to the film -- and he patched Que Viva Mexico! together. The restored film, in fact, a chimera that only approximates Eisenstein's blurry and imprecise concept, was released in the late seventies.
Eisenstein's reputation would be better if the film had remained unseen. Much of the black and white photography is grandiose in a showy, jaw-dropping way -- the film's high contrast shadows laced with brilliant tropical light and stern hieratic compositions are astonishing (you want to press pause to enjoy the stills). Eisenstein shoots everything from a low-angle and his campesinos, village maidens, and priests have a sculptural statuesque quality. He creates bizarre symmetrical compositions and, sometimes, uses extraordinary deep focus, a face or mask looming on one side of the frame while violent action occurs on a sunbaked hilltop five-hundred yards away. Much of the film looks like the prestigious co-production with Fidel Castro, I am Cuba, a movie of equally hallucinatory beauty embellishing moronic narratives, albeit stories that are developed more thoroughly than the half-witted sketches in Que Viva. Que Viva Mexico's prologue seems to be mostly about a comely Indian maiden's breasts and her tryst with a simpering boyfriend in a hammock zebra-striped with the shadow of an overhead ramada. The movie is unintentionally condescending and, even, racist. Frequent Disney-style (Eisenstein greatly admired Walt Disney) shots of animals, including monkeys, intercut with human activity suggests that the Mexicans are not merely child-like but instinctual creatures like the parrots and simians surrounding them. A sequence entitled "Fiesta" follows, focusing on a young woman's attempt to earn enough money to buy an elaborate silver-coin necklace that will be her dowry. This story is tangential to other documentary style images of religious processions and masked dancers. (There is extraordinary footage of hundreds of peasants crawling on their knees up the steps of the great pre-Hispanic pyramid at Cholula -- a Catholic church manned by photogenic and scowling priests is at the pyramid's summit.) We see a bullfight very badly edited -- Alexandrov can't get the close-ups to match the long-shot documentary images of the bloody spectacle. At one point, Eisenstein obviously has someone pushing the bull horns mounted on a wheeled assembly, chasing his actors around in a deserted and dusty arena -- the POV effect is risible. The longest sequence in the movie is entitled "Maguey" and takes place on a high llano where gigantic maguey plants dwarf the human actors: two volcanoes rise picturesquely over the bizarre-looking plantation. The story is utterly ridiculous -- an evil landowner exercises droit du seigneur with respect to another comely Indian maiden, this young woman about to be married to an equally pretty Indian boy. The white-pajamed peasants rise up after drinking vast quantities of pulque -- they can't quite manage to get the foamy stuff into their mouths and its drizzles down their jaws and beards and puffs up their moustaches into a creamy-looking pastry of maguey-beer and whiskers. The villains have handle-bar moustaches or eerily eroded faces and they leer at the camera and drink mescal toasts to a portrait of Porfiro Diaz. One of them is even a privileged woman with a strangely immense derriere -- she rides sidesaddle on a little pony, hunts down the campesinos, and kills them with her dainty pistol. There's an amateurishly staged fight among the surrealistically oversized maguey plants. The peasants lose the gun battle -- it looks like something from a home-movie with extras melodramatically clutching their breasts and, then, falling sinuously to the ground. The hero and his buddies are buried up to their shoulders in the desert sand and, then, trampled to death by the villainous landowner's churros. These scenes are also ineptly edited and comical in effect. The poor, raped Indian girl is last seen attending to her trampled and dead lover, stuck upright like a post in the dirt. A final sequence involving brave peasant women called Soldaderas supplying victuals and moral support to their rebel husbands was mercifully never shot. The movie ends with fantastic images of a Day of the Dead festival. The corpses imitating wealthy bankers and ranchers and politicians tear off their skeletal masks to reveal (unconvincingly) that they are actually just heaps of bones -- the "doomed classes" as the narrator (Sergei Bondarchuk at his most portentous) tells us. Other calvaras peel off their masks to show laughing Indian boys and girls, the revolutionary future for Mexico.
It's a cruel comment but one that must be made: the high-contrast black and white, the ridiculously gorgeous compositions, the dense montage cutting between masks and dancers, the lances of bright light piercing darkness and the emphasis on the volkisch purity of the Indian peasants -- all of this looks like something shot by Leni Riefenstahl, although with less intelligence and elegance.