September 13, 2010

Natalia Almada's El General

On September 12, 2010 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I saw Natalia Almada's new film El General about her great-grand father, Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles. More than a documentary, El General is a category-defying meditation on revolution, history and memory. (trailer at IMDb)

A school teacher who rose to the rank of general in Mexico's 1910-1920 revolution, Calles became president in 1924 and continued to orchestrate post-revolutionary Mexican politics until his exile in 1936. He is buried next to Pancho Villa in Mexico City's Monument of the Revolution. Calles continues to be a controversial figure, who is remembered principally for his unification of Mexico and his violent confrontations with the Catholic Church.

The project was inspired by six hours of audio cassettes made by Almada's grandmother (Calles' daughter) reminiscing about her childhood. However, the audio clips provide no more than a simple armature for the film, which gracefully swings between archival news footage, scans of old photos and clippings, home movies, and Chuy Chavez's brilliant cinematography of street scenes in contemporary Mexico City. Added to the mix are clips of Sergei Eisenstein's ¡Que viva México! and Elia Kazan's ¡Viva Zapata! (with Brando playing the hero, according to a John Steinbeck script).

The score is original music by John Zorn, Marc Ribot and Shazahd Ismaili, with Ribot's guitar figuring prominently throughout. (Ribot's new album, Silent Movies, to be released later this month, will include some music from the film.)

All this comes together as an epic tone poem under Almada 's careful direction (she won a Best Direction, Documentary award at Sundance 2009) and her intuitive, preternaturally seamless editing.