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Kino on Video presents

¡Qué Viva México! (1931/1979)

"On the whole it was intended to be a colorful film symphony about Mexico."- Grigori Alexandrov

Stars: S. Bondarchuk
Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Manufacturer: CMCA
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (National Geographic style nudity, violence)
Run Time: 01h:27m:39s
Release Date: 2001-04-03
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+BB A-


DVD Review

Sadly, it sometimes happens in the motion picture industry that a filmmaker begins a movie, but for one reason or another, is forced to stop before completion. As is often the case, the studio providing the funding completes the picture and tries to make up its financial outlay. Occasionally, as was the case with Touch of Evil, the director's notes and the essential original materials are preserved, and it is possible to recreate the director's original vision.

Such was also the case with Sergei Eisenstein and his aborted pseudo-documentary, ¡Qué Viva México!. Envisioned as part documentary and part acted, the film would be in five sections each taking an aspect of life in Mexico, both before and after the 1910 Revolution. Eisenstein completed all but the last section before he ran out of funds. When he returned to the USSR, the film remained behind in Hollywood and was held prisoner for nearly fifty years, before, astonishingly, the original producer of the 1931 footage was allowed to assemble the picture in 1979, as intended, from Eisenstein's outlines and storyboards.

The movie opens with a short introduction from the producer, Grigori Alexandrov, who explains briefly what the three of them (he, Eisenstein and cinematographer Eduard Tisse) were attempting to accomplish. As assembled here, we get equal doses of timelessness in the form of the ruins of Teotihuacan, the fascination with death and the ongoing flow of life that made up—and still make up—Mexico. The first segment revolves around the matriarchal society and the method of obtaining a husband by earning gold coins to make a necklace that will function as the dowry. The beauty and youth of the girls is contrasted by the shriveled and wizened visages of the matchmaking old women. The doubts about the wisdom of the system are expressed in both the voiceover and in the face of Concepcion, the principal subject, at her wedding. We then cut to the Fiesta, where the mix of the pagan and the Christian is deftly combined in both ceremony and the locations of the churches. In the third, bullfight sequence, we see Eisenstein's complete mastery of the art of montage, where the intercutting greatly heightens the excitment. We also get a primitive 'bull-cam', with the camera perched between the bull's horns.

Wrapping up the completed section of the film is an extended dramatization called Maguey, named after the cactus, the juice of which is used to make pulque. The occupation of sucking out the juice is likened to the big hacienda owners prior to the revolution, where the peasant was little better than a slave. Here Eisenstein's political sensibilities are given completely free rein, as the landowners are made to be completely inhuman brutes, raping the young woman who is presented by her fiancée for sanction of their wedding. This results in a bloody gun battle, which is exciting even though foredoomed by the superior equipment of the landowners. The appalling cruelty of the landowner is rewarded, however, when his daughter goes out to shoot peasants herself for sport.

Missing is the concluding segment, regarding the soldaderas, or wives of the revolutionaries. We get a brief summary of what would have been included, and then the documentary wraps up with a short view of the festivities of the Day of the Dead.

It's difficult to say how well the completion here matches what Eisenstein himself would have done. It is, however, clearly powerful and evocative as much of his other work was. The imagery (such as the pilgrims carrying crosses made of cacti on their shoulders) is undeniably fascinating and holds the attention. The mixture of documentary and fiction anticipates modern day docudramas, though in a more intellectually honest manner. The accompanying music varies from traditional Mexican mariachi-style music to electronic sounds that seem rather out of place; but the latter work effectively in the temple sequences and the presentations of the skulls and funerary veneration. In all, a skillful reconstruction that, at least on its face, is consistent with Eisenstein's style and beliefs.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original elements are in surprisingly good condition. Black levels are decent, and a wide range of grays is seen. There is a certain amount of flicker and occasional speckling. Some of the handheld shots, such as during the bullfight, are blurry, but this is the exception. Overall this is a very nice presentation of some fascinating imagery. English subtitles are burned in to the picture.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The sole audio track is the original Russian one recorded in 1979, using a modern reader of Eisenstein's intended narration. The sound is a little tinny, but on the whole decent, with nominal hiss and noise. The music comes through quite well, though range suffers a bit.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Two Eisenstein short films
  2. Clippings file of articles and related materials
Extras Review: Kino presents a loaded disc to go with the film. First, in direct support of the feature are production notes in the case. A set of period articles about the making of the film and Eisenstein's farewell to Hollywood (bemoaning the lack of creativity--how little things change!) is included on the disc. An article in the socialist press condemning the studio's version of Eisenstein's footage, which was limited to the happy and festive materials, also makes for interesting reading. Wrapping the clippings file up are a bibliography about Eisenstein and his involvement with Mexico, and an 'outline' of sorts by Eisenstein. The outline is not, however, the basis of the reconstruction, but rather a more freeform essay on Mexico, touching on many of the same themes as are seen in the footage here.

But that's not all. A 1930 experimental art film shot by Eisenstein in France, Romance Sentimentale, is a dazzling array of images and music. One of his few apolitical works, this piece shows a very different side of Eisenstein's creativity. The other film is a twenty-minute excerpt of Misery and Fortune of Woman, which details the horrors of backroom abortions and uses montage forcefully to argue for safe ob/gyn medicine. At the same time, it also dramatizes in a highly effective manner the plight of the working class woman in early Soviet Russia, a view not entirely in accord with the rulers.

Although I ordinarily would not consider giving an A grade to a disc that lacked a commentary, the extras in this case are exceptional enough that such a grade is merited.

Extras Grade: A-

Final Comments

An intriguing and often beautiful reconstruction, with a clear political agenda. The elements are in surprisingly good condition, and the supplementary material is quite good indeed. Recommended.

Mark Zimmer 2001-02-22