Blu-Ray Review – Canoa: A Shameful Memory
Canoa: A Shameful Memory
I fully admit to my extreme lack of knowledge regarding Mexican Cinema. So experiencing the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray disc of Canoa: A Shameful Memory was an interesting window into a facet of the Mexican artistic heritage. It is considered a seminal work in political Mexican film making. A reenactment of a tragedy from their history, this film proved influential to later generations of directors in that country.
The title refers to a village called San Miguel Canoa which is at the foot of the La Malinche mountain. It is a few miles outside of Puebla. The incident at the heart of the film is outlined by a reporter at the start of the film. 5 young men who merely worked at the University in Puebla decided to go hiking at the mountain for a long weekend. However, while in the small town during a torrential downpour that made them delay their trip, they are mistaken for a group of Communist activists. This was in 1968 which was a politically charged time in Mexico. The government was filling the people with fears about encroaching Communism and the film argues those fears were stoked so those in power could continue to exert their control. In this instance, the head of the local church keeps tight reigns on the community. And because of this fear, the mob of villagers beat 4 of the men to death and left one severely injured. These unfortunate young men were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The portrayal of this shameful memory uses many interesting film making techniques that were considered revolutionary in 1976 when the movie came out. Part mock documentary, part informational travelogue, part horror film, Canoa was seen as an unusual display of form. For instance, there is a poor farmer through most of the film who breaks the 4th wall and addresses the camera throughout the movie. He’s the one who outlines the political situations for us. But virtually every character at one point addresses the camera. At certain points there is a camera noise running in the background to make it seem that a documentary is being made. Later however, we see the camera crew making this documentary from a third person perspective. Also, there are objective shots showing the history of the town and the players involved.
The townsfolk are destitute since they are required to give a portion to their earnings to the church which also acts as local government. If ever there was a succinct argument for separation of church and state, this story is it. From an American film perspective, this movie reminded me of a more complex version of the western The Ox-Bow Incident which also involved the fears of a runaway mob seeking their own justice on mistaken innocents. But this story also is an indictment of the Mexican government as well.
Per usual, Criterion has done a superb job on this disc. Aside from the pristine 4K digital transfer that renders a 40 year old Mexican film vibrant with colors that pop and sharp shadows, they have also curated a helpful portion of supplementary material.
The jacket features a well written essay by Fernanda Solorzano which helps put this story in historical perspective. She points out how this incident is inextricably linked to a much larger massacre near that same time in Mexico. She also discusses the importance of this film in Mexican film history.
There is a brief introduction to the film by Guillermo del Toro who spends a few minutes talking about why he feels this movie belongs in the great movie pantheon. However, the best supporting item is an hourlong interview that Alfonso Cuarón conducts with the director of Canoa, Felipe Cazals. That interview interspersed with clips is a real eyeopener showing how just like we in America in the 1970s were experiencing one of the most important decades in our film history, Mexico was opening up new storytelling avenues as well. For Latin American political cinema Costa Gavras is the name that probably first comes to mind. But Cuarón posits that the likes of Cazals and others were new voices in cinema. And Cuaron’s passion and knowledge of this film makes for an enthusiastic and substantive discussion.
Yes, sometimes those of us here in the states tend to think of watching older foreign films akin to eating your vegetables. But there really is a wealth of talent in World Cinema. And it’s a good reminder to know that other cultural revolutions were happening outside of our borders too. Kudos to Criterion for again shining a spotlight on some underrepresented yet worthy film.