A century on, how do we describe the legacy of the Mexican Revolution? How do we comprehend the deep national lore of this long, violent struggle to topple dictatorship and rebuke pervasive disparities of wealth and privilege? It sounds like a job for the cinema. In Revolución, the result of ten Mexican filmmakers reflecting on their revolutionary heritage is a vista of pride, pain and poignant disappointment.
And more than just another short-film anthology with a vague geographic peg. This sensitive, self-questioning project couldn't be a gilded museum piece even if it tried. As befits any revolutionary enterprise, it is characterized as much by the coarse anguish of grasping for cohesion as by any enduring righteous eloquence.
The films of Revolución range in temperament from the poetic to the prosaic and run no longer than 10 minutes each. They do prove the value of variegating this particular theme: With so many perspectives on offer, at least one should qualify to most viewers as heretofore unconsidered. And of course there's still room for some skepticism about what centennial celebrations such as this are even worth. In the anthology's opener, Fernando Eimbcke's The Welcome Ceremony, a poor rural tuba player prepares for a visit of an important dignitary to his town; arid monochrome prevails, portending a just-right, pointedly unceremonious ending. In Rodrigo Plá's 30/30, the aging grandson of revolution hero Pancho Villa is the guest of honor at an event whose gladhanding overseers keep so busy shuttling him between PR photo-ops that he never gets to deliver his carefully considered public address.
Most of the filmmakers in this group prefer satirizing to sentimentalizing. In Mariana Chenillo's The Estate Store, one employee of a dreary megastore sacrifices love and livelihood to bring legal action against the management, which pays her only in vouchers for its own store. Others, though they worked independently, seem to have striven for a cumulative effect -- a fever dream full of memory-adhesive words and images, like the smoking corpse of an altar boy burned alive in Amat Escalante's The Hanging Priest; or the random-seeming shout of "This isn't Canada!" in Carlos Reygadas's grubby, drunken, progressively chaotic This Is My Kingdom; or the nearly wordless allegory of highwayside survivalism begetting indiscriminate inhumanity in Gerardo Naranjo's vivid, violent R-100.
Revolución was coordinated and co-produced by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, who don't appear on screen but do, as directors, contribute one slightly undercooked film each. As a whole it has an uneasy ratio of specificity to abstraction, but that must be part of the point. Certainly the final installment, Rodrigo García's 7th Street and Alvarado, puts that sense of imbalance to an artful use: It's a wistfully hypnotic slow-motion reverie set in the eponymous Los Angeles intersection, where a handful of grim-faced revolucionarios on horseback pass through the contemporary population, apparently unseen.
As a state-of-the-Mexican-nation address, Revolución does not offer much comfort. The country, it suggests, has remained deeply wounded -- even as the revolutionary spirit of its cinema is robust and thriving.
Revolución plays at 7:30pm Thursday, February 10, and Friday, February 11, 2011, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets, showtimes and more information, visit ybca.org.