Que Viva Mexico

Cahiers du cinéma no. 70; April 1957.

Que viva Mexico

            I regret the prudence of this text. The most complex emotions I speak about here aren’t defined, for they are linked to Eisenstein’s sexuality, a delicate subject I didn’t want to broach.

Few among Eisenstein’s laudators hold the fragmentary versions of Que viva Mexico in high esteem. Time in the Sun is no exception to this severity which is certainly justifiable, but only partly true: discovering the work of the greatest Slavic filmmaker through his theories on the montage of attractions, we lose sight of the essential. Our critics can’t recognize the art of the metteur en scène outside of some pretty images, the latter having handed over the responsibility of curating his work to stooges, to friends of banality. This attitude seems excessive to me. It betrays a distrust in the personality of the artist, it’s not paying heed to the most important aspect: that Eisenstein filmed all the shots in his work himself. By limiting the auteur of Potemkin to his aesthetic experiments, one unfairly categorizes him among the great academicians of cinema, the ones we venerate with an indifference at once respectful and contemptuous.

Without trying to defend the editor Marie Seton, one must call out the ingratitude of this work which consists of selecting the best bits of a genius creator and assembling them while seeking to be both faithful and logical. Skilled or careless, such work always lends itself to criticism. The regrets we have for great works lost forever shouldn’t blind us from what we do have. Que viva Mexico marks a turning point, a decisive step: it’s a rupture with certain figures of style, a sketch for deeper quests, which Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible will push to perfection. Moreover, Mrs. Seton, faithful collaborator of the auteur and respectful of his intention, had practically every shot filmed at her disposal if not every take: kilometres of celluloid have enriched the Mexican stock of some companies and some more have been the object of montages. Thunder over Mexico, an admirable film whose knowledge serves as a necessary complement to the viewing of Time in the Sun, Eisenstein in Mexico, Kermesse funebre etc. We can, I think, show our enthusiasm without being ashamed of our initial reaction.

The median line of this gigantic fresco on the history of Mexican civilization is the return to primitive liberty that the revolution of 1910 will give sanction to once and for all. By dividing his film into five parts, Eisenstein sought to throw into relief the contrast between the various stages of the evolution of the Mexican nation. But the final work gives a lie to this primitive construction: it’s monolithic. No opposition, no break in tone across the diversity of actions being offered. The method is similar to each episode, the one where the young peons are atrociously trampled upon, or the one where the curious residents of Tehuantepec sing of their joy and their love. It’s rather in the art, the Eisensteinian furia that we can find a revolutionary value. Spanish capitalism and European beliefs aren’t the targets here. Instead of boxing himself into some criticism, the auteur accepts all the facts and gestures he describes as a given; he seeks to extract all substance from them without any emotional or political consideration. With great interest, he favours the most complete manifestations of the individual, of people’s power, of mass movement as well as religious belief. Through these contradictory engagements, he paves the way for more serious, more complex problems that these lowly quarrels over doctrine can’t broach. Therein lies perhaps one of the principal reasons for the disagreement with Upton Sinclair, a down-to-earth personality who had for his goal the systematic exploration of exploitation.

The essential feature of Eisenstein’s genius lies in the poetic structure of his work. He is, first and foremost, a poet. But it must be admitted that poetry resides not only in the choice of angles and the plastic quality. Beauty, which creates truth here, goes much beyond formal beauty. The smallest human gestures, the most banal objects are transformed into a state which, more faithful to nature, gives them their deepest meaning. More than the best specialists of intimism, the master of cinematic rhetoric proves himself capable of capturing all the graces, all the nuances of a smile, of rendering the ambiguous expressions of old matrons, the loving tenderness of young Indios. And what richness, what originality, there where another would’ve given in to easy exoticism: bull-fighting, symphony of ripped cactii, monuments of Aztec land, the two lovers daydreaming in a hammock, which an enrapturing camera movement soon hides with a play of leaves and shadows. Across this vast overview of the whole of Mexico, this patchwork rich in virtuosities, we can discern a precise enough orientation of the mise en scène that fortunately contrasts with the fundamental modesty of the film.

Under the reassuring guise of a documentary, Que viva Mexico traces the diary of a tortured genius in a way (on this subject, refer to the excellent study by the same Marie Seton focusing on biographical problems). No other genre than this one, opposed to fiction, could have burst open the intimate drama. With a greater intensity and exhaustiveness, it lets us experience the various attempts of the individual to integrate himself to his material, to become one with that which is perfectly opposed to him.

I firmly believe that no other film – and this one doesn’t get there during the screening either – discharges on the viewer such a surge of images and objects, as diverse and oppressive through their dizzying succession (which appears to have a source other than the arbitrary editing): communion with all the elements, the earth especially, the cold and lifeless stone, which a piece of film suddenly reveals to be loaded with a comparable substance. Sometimes this obsessive tendency is pursued to the letter: the trampling and burial of the rebellious peons, the face of the Indio who surfaces from the shadow and becomes one with the ancient statue. This coexistence of man and the most primitive element, a theme common to all great poets, bears a relation to the religious act. The profusion of material that constantly circumscribes individuals attains its peak in the last episode, this mad dance where extremes meet, where life and death become one for eternity, in an enthusiastic reunion. The richness of the spectacle, the omnipresence of the camera, and these shots which seem to give in under the weight of their content, to express the frenzy of the world, become superficial attractions, quick to conjure the inner malady the creator suffers from. It is to the most exterior form of the object that conscience gets attached to: I want to talk about this aesthetic of “eminences”, so often seen here like in Eisenstein’s later films. Doesn’t it denote an almost pathological desire to make the viewer physically feel some of the most complex emotions?

We must also confront the noblest part of our auteur’s genius with his sense of cinematic mathematics. It is from this conflict, from this duality, which some very subtle elements keep us from (I will only cite the plastic perfection of certain scenes, presented in a new light by a pathological love for the human skin) that the true work is born. As he says himself: “In art, dialectic takes as its base a very curious “binary unity”. A work of art touches you with its double construction: a spontaneous ascent to the highest peaks of lucidity and a simultaneous penetration, discernible by the formal conception, into the deepest layers of the sensual soul. The opposition between these two currents creates the remarkable internal tension that characterizes formal unity and true art. Outside of that, there is no true work of art.”1


1[Translator’s Note] The quote as translated by Jay Leyda in Film Form: The dialectic of works of art is built upon a most curious “dual-unity.” The affectiveness of a work of art is built upon the fact that there takes place in it a dual process: an impetuous progressive rise along the lines of the highest explicit steps of consciousness and a simultaneous penetration by means of the structure of the form into the layers of profoundest sensual thinking. The polar separation of these two lines of flow creates that remarkable tension of unity of form and content characteristic of true art-works. Apart from this there are no true art-works.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]