Championed by Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, filmmaker Felipe Cazals, who passed away this past weekend at the age of eighty-four, remains underappreciated outside of Mexico. For del Toro, Cazals’s “truly brave, brutal, precise” 1976 film Canoa: A Shameful Memory is “one of the ten most important Mexican films of the second half of the twentieth century.” Opening an hour-long conversation with his old friend in 2016, Cuarón told Cazals about seeing Canoa for the first time as a teenager—“it was a revelation.” Cuarón returned to the theater to see it again every day for a week and has revisited Canoa several times since. It “always raises new questions for me.”
As Cuarón points out, Canoa is often interpreted as Cazals’s statement on a taboo topic in Mexico, the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968. On October 2, ten days before the ceremony that would open the Olympic Games in Mexico City, the military opened fire on protestors who had gathered on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, killing hundreds. Two weeks before Tlatelolco, on September 14, five employees of the Autonomous University of Puebla set out to climb La Malinche, a mountain about seven-and-a-half miles away, near the village of San Miguel Canoa. Only three made it back home alive.
Cazals lays out the bare facts of the case within the first few minutes of Canoa and then, drawing on documentary-like exposition, Brechtian direct address, and teeth-grindingly suspenseful dramatization, proceeds to investigate the murders. A village farmer (Salvador Sánchez) explains how the icily charismatic local priest (Enrique Lucero), who speaks to his devoted congregation in dark sunglasses, has collaborated with higher-ups to take complete control of the town. The priest fleeces the impoverished villagers at every turn and harangues them day and night via a system of loudspeakers, and they reward him with their hearts and minds.
Cazals sees no need to fill us in on the back stories of the five young men at the university. Instead, he simply has us hang with them for a while in Puebla while they debate whether or not to take the trip, what to bring along, and when to head out. They’re good kids, and they’re having a great time, but this will be just about the most amateurish hiking expedition ever undertaken. Once they arrive in the village, the priest and his allies start spreading the word that they are communists determined to raise their flag—“red for the devil, black for sin”—in front of the cathedral that towers over the landscape.
At this point, Canoa becomes a straight-up horror movie. Like a scout leader telling ghost stories beside a campfire, a local who has been harassed by the priest tells the visitors about the tragic fates of other misfortunate souls who have wandered into San Miguel Canoa while, on the other side of a flimsy wooden door, a torch-bearing mob grows louder and louder. Just before the first deadly blow, Cazals cuts to an after-the-fact interview with the priest, who washes his hands of the whole affair. The diversion is both a distancing and suspense-building effect that allows viewers to reflect on and dread what they are about to see.
Cazals told Cuarón that he aimed to depict “the carrying out of malevolence openly and flagrantly, with no attempt to disguise it, by the government and by religion, by the representatives of both. Look over the entire history of Mexican cinema, and those two figures are always untouchable, good guys, benevolent, traditional, played by the biggest stars in our history. Nobody ever casts doubt on them. They’re never called into question.”
When Screen Slate founder Jon Dieringer included Canoa in his Criterion top ten, he wrote, “I can’t think of anything else that so successfully fuses dyed-in-the-wool radical filmmaking and horror . . . By the end, we’re in something like the Jonestown machete massacre. Ostensibly less outré yet harder to swallow than Salò, this is an unsettling, essential gem.” Fernanda Solórzano argues that “sociopolitical readings of Canoa are insufficient to explain its power.”
Cazals studied at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris, but said he learned far more about filmmaking from the craftspeople he worked with. Álex Phillips Jr., the son of the renowned cinematographer who had worked on some of the great Mexican films of the silent era, shot Canoa. Tomás Peréz Turrent had been an assistant to Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque française for five years before he wrote the first draft of the screenplay. When Cazals showed him the first cut of Canoa, Peréz Turrent said that it wasn’t what he was expecting. Cazals replied that it wasn’t what he was expecting, either.
He had made a few conventional features before—such as Zapata (1970), a biopic based on the life of the Mexican revolutionary—but as Cuarón told him, “Canoa is where you found your voice.” In 1979, he made El año de la peste (Year of the Plague), which Steve Macfarlane, introducing his interview with Cazals for Filmmaker last March—a full year into the current pandemic—called “an eerily prescient work of speculative horror.”
When disease breaks out in a Mexican town, a doctor warns the authorities that it’s highly contagious and potentially catastrophic. The government, acting as so many governments do when faced with something they can’t control, shuts him down. “It’s completely within the realm of possibility that somebody trying to warn people about a plague would be silenced,” Cazals told Macfarlane. “In Canoa, one lie about the students visiting the pueblo results in their murder, the town breaking into chaos. In El año de la peste, there is no single lie, just the hiding of the truth, and that is what breaks the city into chaos. We proceed as if there is no one ‘truth’ in society, because if such a truth were to get out, it would create a rupture in the order of things. And the people in power will not let that happen . . . It was never about being political for its own sake; what I wanted was to show people the real Mexico.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.