Friday, June 14, 2024

Film review: ‘¡Que viva México!’ — visceral, bleak and darkly funny

There’s a popular and cynical joke told often in Mexico, and it goes like this: 

A man goes to the market to buy some live crabs. At the first stall, he finds them stored in a tall basket with a slab of wood laid over it. 

“What’s the wood for?” he asks the vendor. 

“Those are gringo crabs,” the vendor replies. “They’ll climb their way out one by one if I don’t keep it covered.”

The man goes to the next stall and finds another tall basket, this one with an extra heavy slab of wood and a couple of bricks on top. 

“What’s all this for?” he asks the vendor. 

“These are Japanese crabs,” he says. “If I don’t keep them covered, they’ll pool all their strength and work as a team to all escape together.”

At the third stall, he finds a short crab-filled basket with no lid at all. 

“Why aren’t these covered?” he asks. 

“These are Mexican crabs,” says the vendor. “If one tries to get out, the others pull it right back in.”

The joke is not at all flattering. But it’s so popular that when someone refers to cangrejos mexicanos (Mexican crabs), most people know exactly what they’re referring to and nod their heads vigorously: “Oh yes, that is what we do. It really is a shame.” 

Mexicans might fall all over themselves to be polite and display all the niceties they’re famous for, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most are deeply suspicious of each other, a natural consequence of a stratified society in which so many of the ways to get ahead involve “special favors” of dubious legality.

Cangrejos mexicanos…” my partner muttered as we watched Luis Estrada’s new film, “¡Que Viva México!” Honestly, it might as well have been the name of the movie.

The film’s a long one, clocking in at over three hours. Like all of Estrada’s films (that I’ve seen, anyway), it’s visceral, bleak and darkly funny.

I’ve been a fan of Estrada’s work for a while now, which is as easily recognizable stylistically as any movie by Quentin Tarantino. The first movie I saw of his was “La Ley de Herodes” (“Herod’s Law”), a biting critique of the PRI’s long and corrupt rule over Mexico. 

The next one was “Infierno” (“Hell”), a story set during Felipe Calderón’s bloody reign. The others in the saga are “Un Mundo Maravilloso” and “La Dictadura Perfecta.” All are satire, and the same actors star in most of them. 

“La Ley de Herodes” and “Infierno” in particular do a brilliant job of getting you to sympathize and root for the main character until the bitter end, even after he’s clearly become one of the “bad guys,” kind of in the same way we kept hoping Walter White of “Breaking Bad” would finally come out on top.

Estrada is a candid and creative chronicler of various Mexican “moments,” and this film was the latest in the saga. He has an innate understanding of how cultural norms play out when framed in the politics of the time and just knows how to weave a great, many-layered story.

In a lot of ways, the film itself is simply a different telling of the crab joke: everyone in the film is self-serving, jealous and hypocritical, preferring for others to fail than to share good fortune when it comes up — unless someone else is picking up the tab, of course.

Without spoiling the ending, here’s a quick synopsis: Pancho, the film’s protagonist, is a man who left his small, humble town named La Prosperidad (Prosperity) and found success in business in the big city. 

When his grandfather dies, his family convinces him to travel back home for the burial and reading of the will, after he’s been away for 20 years. He does so with his wife, his two children and their housekeeper/cook/nanny/generally abused and oft-insulted servant in tow.

The impoverished town, made up almost exclusively of Pancho’s family, is full of colorful, dirt-poor, ethically questionable characters (“caricatures” is more like it, actually). When the will is finally read and Pancho learns he’s inherited the entirety of his grandfather’s much-greater-than-expected estate, pandemonium ensues, ultimately leading to the kind of ending typical in a Luis Estrada film.

The movie is not flattering to anyone. Nobody is morally righteous, and many of the scenes seem tailor-made to elicit feelings of disgust and contempt for all these foolish and selfish humans. Who’s worse: the ones pretending to be good people or the openly self-interested ones? It is truly hard to decide which character to hate the most.

It’s not flattering to the upper-class bourgeois couple (portrayed by Alfonso Herrera and Ana de la Reguera), and it’s not flattering to the husband’s poor relatives.

And it’s certainly not flattering to AMLO and his “Fourth Transformation.”

The film borrows much of the president’s own rhetoric: the couple are accused several times of being fifis (a derogatory term for elites), and the extended family often refer to themselves as “the wise and good poor.” 

AMLO himself — the real one — was not amused by the film, calling it a flop made for “conservative consumption.” This is not surprising, of course, as he’s well-known for taking criticism very personally. 

And while Estrada’s previous films were all at least partially financed by the very governments he was satirizing, that support was predictably withheld for this one as this presidential administration has stopped supporting the Mexican film industry in general.

In “¡Que Viva México!,” no one is morally upstanding: it’s all villains and no heroes, soliciting, for the most part, only the most cynical of laughs. Like I said, bleak.

That said, I highly recommend it. Aside from being a great film, it’s a brilliant, absurd distillation of some big aspects of the culture. 

Estrada, for his part, seems fine with the criticism he’s received as a result, even from the president. 

“If you dish it out, you’ve got to be able to take it too,” he says

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com

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