Movie Review: Zapata – El sueño del héroe

Title: Zapata – El sueño del héroe (2004)

Writer/Director: Alfonso Arau

Cammy: In my procurement of media to assist in my Spanish practice, I wound up with a copy of the relatively-recent Mexican feature film,  Zapata – El sueño del héroe.  When I bought the DVD a few months ago I watched the first, maybe 5 minutes and was completely lost.  The thing had NO English subtitles and my Spanish clearly wasn’t up to par to tackle this one.  I mean, there were Spanish subtitles in those first minutes, but I was connecting none of what I was hearing to what I was reading.

Months later, after a LOT of telenovela viewing, I felt a little better, but I still thought it would be smart to bring it with me on my visit to Kristy and watch it with her.  For one, her Spanish is vastly better than mine after years of classes, a degree in Latin American studies and two summers in Latin American countries.  For another, that same degree in Latin American studies meant that her over-all knowledge of the history of Emiliano Zapata was likely to be way better than mine.  Just like she helped prop me up through University Spanish, I was going to depend on her again!

Lucky for me, Kristy is indulgent of my bizarre whims and was willing to tackle this one with me.  She was also tolerant of me demanding to pause the movie for any number of reasons ranging from bathroom breaks, more booze, demands for translations, or just so I could squee upon recognizing a telenovela star.

All in all, this was just a damn bizarre movie.  If you are expecting a straight-up history lesson in the form of a costume drama, you’re not going to get it.  Certain elements are oddly historically correct, such as the use of indigenous language (remember how totally confused I was when I tried to watch the first five minutes, even with Spanish subtitles on?  Yeah, the reason I couldn’t understand anything spoken was that it wasn’t spoken in Spanish.  It was in an indigenous dialect.  Thank you, Kristy!).  Other elements are, well, very Latin American.  If Kristy hadn’t once explained that Latin literature employs magical and supernatural characters and symbolism in a much more fluid manner than our English-language literature, I might have freaked out more at the magically appearing/disappearing old crone, and her pregnant woman and teen girl companions.  It was still weird, but I could take that.

What I couldn’t quite take (among other things) was how, apparently, less than half the buildings in Mexico have a roof and there are an inordinate number of bombed-out lookin’ structures in that country (“Does nothing have a LID?”). While these made for visually beautiful scenes, it was a bit of a head-scratcher for me.  Was this a commentary I was too dense to get?  A reference to something in history my ignorant gringa-ass doesn’t know? Just because it looked cool??

As far as plot goes, good luck.  Maybe it was the rotten-ness of my Spanish skills, but the plot didn’t seem too coherent, at least as far as literal history was concerned.  This may have been the editing, or the over-use of the supernatural “sueño” element (language lesson: sueño means dream).  Theoretically we follow Zapata from his birth through his “death” but the path of the history is a mash up of real and supernatural that’s just not easy to keep track of.

The symbolism of Zapata as a Messiah figure for indigenous Mexicans, however, was pretty well beat into one’s head.  From his oddly heralded birth with a noted Queztlcoatl-esque birthmark, to his having a wacky (and kinda fun) Last-Supper-esque dream (complete with people singing “La Cucaracha”), to his mysterious death and the rumors of his coming again….yeah, I know the whole joke about Jesus Christ being Mexican because who else would be named Jesús, but…damn.

Some of the incoherency was also explained as Kristy read an IMDB post from someone who’d worked on the project briefly.  Apparently there were some serious financial and organizational hurdles involved with the making of the film that probably degraded the overall editing and quality.  The film was panned by a lot of critics, true, but it seems it had tremendous potential to be a hit.

Much of that potential can be seen in the wonderful cast.  I knew the film involved Lucero, with whom I was already familiar thanks to music and telenovelas.  She’s one of the images on the cover of the DVD– wearing an ugly hat.  This ugly-hat theme was to carry through all but about 3 scenes in which she appeared.  More than once I commented, “Oh, hey, look, it’s Lucero in ANOTHER ugly hat!” as we watched, which has prompted me to declare that henceforth we ought to refer to Lucero as “Bad Hat.”*

Kristy and I also had to cock our heads and resort to IMDB to identify the actress playing Zapata’s wife (a character we dubbed “Braids”).  We’ll give you the key hint to figuring out where you’ve seen her before:  The Mummy.  She also leads the second-best moment of film which I will only allude to as “The Amazing Exploding Saint”–which is also the first scene in which a woman is useful to the rebellion and isn’t either a prostitute or supernatural.

I also had a moderate squee moment upon recognizing the gentleman who plays Don Adriano Reyes in Por Ella Soy Eva as the general.  I had a MAJOR squee moment when I realized Jaime Camil was in the movie (which I would have realized if I’d actually read the names on the front of the DVD instead of just mocking Lucero’s bad hat).  As Zapata’s primary side-kick Eufemio, Camil is in plenty of the movie, and provides humor through much of it, particularly when he stages a rescue that involves chili peppers and hookers (I will say no more, but I’m pretty sure Kristy agrees that it was the best part of the film).

Both of us were leary upon reading that apparently something in this film was nominated for an MTV movie award for “weirdest sex.”  We spotted it (hint: for once, Bad Hat wasn’t wearing a Bad Hat), but it was relatively mild.  Apparently most people would be far more disturbed by the sex in Y Tu Mama Tambien–this is according to Kristy as I’ve not seen that particular film.

For what little I know of Mexican history it was fun to pick out key figures. Porfirio Diaz and his fabulous mustache were there (honestly, that mustache is one of the only reasons I remember Diaz at all), and the always-on, larger-than-life Pancho Villa makes an appearance**.  Pancho Villa and Bad Hat also provided great opportunities for me to practice discerning Spanish accents–you don’t always need to understand the words to know they sound different (I think Kristy might have been proud of me for catching that Norteño accent of Villa’s….and for Bad Hat, I wasn’t sure what that accent was, but I sure knew it sounded funny–I believe Kristy said it was probably Castilian and meant to mark her as a Peninsular).

The Alejandro Fernández did a great job as Zapata.  From what little I know of the actual Zapata, he was intelligent, subdued, and quietly driven to see things done right–not to control.  I may have read too much into my interpretation of the figure, but the actor did a great job fitting that interpretation.  The only part that baffled me was Zapata’s relationship to Bad Hat.  Not sure if that was historically  accurate or not, but it just didn’t fit to me. One could argue it was just there just to catalyze a certain plot point, but I really think they could have found another way to do it.  Kinda wanted to see Braids kick his ass on principle over the whole matter.

I certainly hope that’s not the last big budget historic flick that Mexico attempts.  They have a rich history with a lot of potential for historic costume drama.  I think with adequate funding they could definitely have some international recognition for these.  Even with the uniquely Latin incorporation of magical/supernatural elements, the amount of talent and the strength of the stories they have would translate across borders if properly edited and marketed.

All in all, I’ll give it a jar and half of peanut butter.  Visually it’s often an arresting film (minus one or two FX shots that failed for 2004, but would have been fine a decade or so before), there were some really good performances (Jaime Camil being the best, and not just because he’s hot) and memorable scenes (the hookers), but it lacks in final assembly and in the lack of English subtitles to open it up to other audiences.  If you’re visually oriented and just looking to challenge yourself to see how much Spanish you recognize, there are worse ways to spend a few hours, but if you’re hoping for a good history lesson and a strong review of Spanish vocab, just stick with the telenovelas.

Kristy: Cammy’s just about said it all.

Things I love: the aforementioned scenes with the hookers and the chili peppers (no, it’s not as dirty as it sounds. Hell, it’s barely dirty at all.)

The staging of the famous photo of Zapata and Villa

This very soapy, but cool interchange between Zapata and his wife :
Z: I always come back.
W: You always leave. It’s not the same.

Things I didn’t love as much: Unnecessary ugly hats

The mother/maiden/crone imagery. Nothing makes a folklorist roll her eyes faster. Except Joseph Campbell references.

*Important note:  We’re mocking the head-gear and, somewhat, the character, not the actress.
**Though, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed.  Ever since Kristy did this post on BSG, I always picture Pancho Villa as Papa Adama from the New Caprica period with that terrible ‘stache.

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