“499” Brooding skies over land in disarray witness an anonymous soldier in historical regalia washing ashore. As soon as a part of Hernan Cortes’ military that savagely conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521, this bearded Spanish strongman has misplaced his vigor. A feminine narrator explains the unexplainable: a fissure within the cloth of the metaphysical or divine intervention despatched him to the identical geographical place, now the nation of Mexico, in fashionable instances.
The ingenious non-fiction movie “499,” titled after the variety of years between the autumn of the Aztec empire and 2020 (when the movie first premiered at festivals), can’t probably be talked about as a commonplace documentary. Its Mexican director Rodrigo Reyes has usually walked in liminal areas, whether or not that’s the divide between two international locations seen in “Purgatorio,” shot on the U.S.-Mexico border, or the intersection of fiction and his interpretation of noticed reality discovered right here.
Portrayed with quiet pressure by actor Eduardo San Juan, the conqueror travels from the east coast to the central area, retracing his personal steps however sans his voracious compatriots. “499” provides a one-of-a-kind meditation on the impact of colonialism, a nightmare and a dream wrapped into one. The movie roams harsh matters by means of this narrative gadget of a time traveler, one who’s international to the state of this nation however answerable for it.
Now, precisely 500 years since Spanish colonizers imposed their faith and planted the seeds for the parable of mestizaje (the notion that their appropriation of the territory and enslavement of its folks resulted in a mixed-raced id), Mexico is lastly reckoning with the racism that was beforehand not named as such however all the time upheld whiteness and Eurocentric information above Indigenous options, language, and tradition.
However, the present public repudiation of that ingrained and corrosive ideology stays symbolic because the nation continues to operate by means of a system the place race and sophistication are intertwined in a pervasive cycle. These most susceptible to poverty and violence at the moment do not often appear to be the oppressor, however nearer to people who centuries in the past had been additionally victimized. All through the journey, Reyes solely confronts this determine with working-class folks, poor folks, dark-skinned folks; the faces of Mexico that vacationers turned away from and that the native movie productions and tv stations don’t depict.
With no voice, the smug conquistador is pressured to take heed to their plights. His inner monologue comes through voiceover, musing concerning the locations he as soon as knew, bragging concerning the barbaric acts he dedicated or judging the Aztecs for his or her practices. He deems everybody he is available in contact with a savage and mocks Moctezuma’s friendliness as an invite for the Spaniards’ urge for food for gold.
By together with such disturbing dialogue, becoming for the character, Reyes isn’t solely denouncing him and people like him, however persuading us into introspection, to research why we might have harbored comparable biases as a part of our Western indoctrination. In short moments of extra-human readability, the undesirable customer expresses his affinity for sure points of the folks and terrain he destroyed and even regrets his cold-bloodedness. The extra he realizes that the glory he thought he achieved has vanished, the extra pathetic he turns into. Reyes writes him, it appears, because the embodiment of a worldview that’s, hopefully, dying as we query it extra fervently.
Lots of his encounters are tied to the victims and perpetrators of the wave of crime and loss of life that’s drowned Mexico for over a decade. Residents trying to find their lacking or murdered family members has, sadly, cemented itself as a recurrent trope in Mexican cinema in the identical time period, however, Reyes spins that conference barely within the fluidity of how he strings these encounters. He by no means dwells lengthily on any single one, however, crops them as a sequence of emotional mines that detonate every time the defeated soldier advances.
Migration is a prevalent theme in Reyes’ work, and “499” additionally options it. A rigorously framed shot of this man from one other time in uniform sitting amongst Central American migrants, simply as misplaced as them however in far distinct circumstances, encapsulates the entrancing visible dissonance his presence creates. Testimony of how these migrants, largely males, flee their homelands because of threats from legal teams attracts robust parallels to how the arrival of the white males, along with his illness and his cruelty, pushed native civilizations into exile or servitude. Because the movie states repeatedly, that is yet one more reminder of how the processes of oppression don’t disappear however evolve. For the Central Americans, the Mexican authorities and cartels symbolize the monsters alongside their path. In the event that they make it to the U.S., the tyrant solely modifications its identity and techniques.
Along with its oddly efficient premise, “499” advantages from an aesthetic that’s expressionist inside the boundaries of actuality. Cinematographer Alejandro Mejía shoots the Spanish specter as if he had been an astronaut on an unknown planet within the vastness of open fields. Typically, the settings were chosen as stops for him to catch his breath and ponder, like a landfill or a bridge that overlooks a sea of brake lights, reinforce a warped high quality, targeted on the unflattering decay. There are not any postcard-friendly vistas or landmarks.
Midway into the pilgrimage, a passage brings the European nose to nose with an Indigenous group that speaks Nahuatl. Each uttered phrase of their native tongue is resistance materialized. The language didn’t die as a result of its audio system preserved it, without the assistance of the Mexican state, and so their interpretation of the world additionally persevered, regardless of how a lot the invaders tried to rid the inhabitants of their id. In these scenes, and elsewhere, the themes are conscious of the theatricality of this actor’s involvement. However, even of their improvised performances, the make imagines permits for revelations of extra internal profundity, like when a former navy man, who now makes a dwelling illegitimately, brings sudden humor right into a scene involving completely different caliber weapons.
Ultimately, he reaches Mexico Metropolis, the metropolis constructed on the ruins of the Aztec capital that homes a few of the most excessive wealth disparities. There, a harrowing account of despicable femicide pierces our psyche and begs the query of how such barbaric acts of hatred may very well be traced again to the horrific foundations of this society, one which was cast by means of violence and self-hatred. For many people who’ve departed Mexico to seek the prosperity denied at the house, and who now be taught of inhumanity from a safer and privileged place, the nation nonetheless pains us like a phantom limb. In “499,” a very good accomplishment of unconventional storytelling, type and theme coalesce to open a portal the place textbook historical past turns into a lively entity and clashes with the current for a forward-thinking exploration.
Now enjoying in choose theaters.