Background: Canoa: A Shameful Memory (Spine #862) is a pivotal piece of Mexican political filmmaking. It’s director Felipe Cazals’s first film in the collection as well as the seventh Mexican film overall to be inducted.
Story: During an ill-fated mountaineering trip, several employees of a Mexican university are mistaken by the villagers of the small town of San Miguel Canoa as Communist agitators. Spurred on by the town’s priest—a corrupt strongman who brainwashed the town with fear and religious propaganda—the villagers brutally lynch the employees.
The Film: In his brief Blu-ray introduction to Canoa: A Shameful Memory, director Guillermo del Toro calls it one of the ten most important Mexican films of the last half of the twentieth century. The film’s impact on the Mexican film industry cannot be overstated. In an era when Mexican cinema had atrophied into clichéd studio pap—nothing but mannered romances and bowdlerized retellings of folklore—Cazals’s formalistically daring and politically provocative Canoa hit like a thunderbolt. It condemned the Mexican government who contributed to the atmosphere of fear and panic that led to the San Miguel Canoa lynchings. It condemned the Catholic Church whose complicity in the government’s anti-Communist crackdowns and their own efforts to consolidate their power in the remote countryside resulted in an uneducated, easily manipulated lumpenproletariat. It featured scenes of grotesque, graphic violence that outdid even Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola at their most exploitative. And it eschewed traditional story structure for Brechtian flourishes: fourth wall breaks, voice over narration, documentary segments. And in the last act it abandons the visual language of political thrillers in favor of shots ripped straight from horror films.
And yet, stripped from all this historical and cultural context, many modern viewers unfamiliar with Mexican cinema might find the film ponderous, uneven, and even disengaging. Such is the fate of many watershed films in countries detached from the West’s cinematic purview. Though Cazals was heavily influenced by the films of the French Nouvelle Vague and mentioned Costa-Gavras as a direct influence for Canoa, the film has more in common stylistically and visually with the films of the Brazilian Cinema Novo, a 1960s and 1970s movement led by film critics and intellectuals turned filmmakers who deliberately made obtuse, noncommercial films in an effort to revitalize and politicize their native cinema. For outsiders unfamiliar with Brazilian society and history, the films are largely frustrating and indecipherable. But even with said familiarity, they still come across more like shallow intellectual exercises than groundbreaking works of art.
Similarly, Cazals took every opportunity to distance his audience from the horrors being perpetrated. The film begins with the lynchings being recounted to a reporter in a newsroom. Then we get documentary segments exploring San Miguel Canoa, their history, and their culture. Only afterwards do we meet the doomed university employees as they plan and set out for a mountaineering expedition that leads them to the aforementioned village where they are mistaken as Communists. Even when the lynch mob forms and starts attacking the employees, Cazals cuts away at seemingly random times to show ancillary characters talking about this and that. His purposefully static and understated visual style—there are no fancy camera tricks, few frame compositions that draw attention to themselves—keeps the film rooted in a bland objectivity completely at odds with his Brechtian techniques used to implicate the audience and make them reflect on what they’re watching. The feeling one gets leaving Canoa: A Shameful Memory is that of having witnessed something culturally important yet artistically unsatisfying.
The Supplements: Along with the Del Toro introduction, the only special features included on the Criterion Blu-ray are a lengthy essay by Fernanda Solórzano and an even lengthier talk between Cazals and Alfonso Cuarón. These extras go to great lengths to insist upon the films cultural and historical importance, but they do little to validate it as a great work of art.
Overall: Criterion completionists, devotees of Mexican cinema, and film historians are the only ones I can see getting any real enjoyment from this release. Nothing can diminish the film’s importance. And in that regard the film is worth preservation and study. But for a night at the movies, look elsewhere.
Film Grade: B-
Criterion Grade: C+
Featured Image: The Criterion Collection