499, Best Cinematography Award at Tribeca Film Festival 2020 and recent winner of the Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs, directed by Rodrigo Reyes, opens with a picturesque wide angle view of brooding storm clouds and roiling waves washing ashore a tantalizing ocean beach in Vera Cruz. Off in the distance in the upper left of the scene that can make one imagine a picture perfect postcard streaming live images, a floundering figure bobbles up and down in the rambunctious waves until he washes up on shore.
It’s a bonafide temperamental ocean day around 2019, or thereabouts, and washed up on shore is a bonafide Conquistador, vintage 1519. 2019. Hint: This is not your typical documentary film. Audiences should prepare themselves for a transtemporal nonfiction historical movie by a filmmaker taking on the challenge to tell an audience nothing less than the absolute truth.
Director Rodrigo Reyes uses nonfictional film elements of documentary filmmaking andh narrative fictional elements, with the components of a road movie, about an epic moment in the history of a country, “the brutal legacy of colonialism in contemporary Mexico” almost 500 years after Hernan Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire.
This writer’s history recollection of Cortés is based on typical pop culture cinemas about that period in time. Compared to his history and understanding of the Vietnam War and all the big contemporary American-involved wars in the Middle East, Herman Cortés registers on the margins of his understanding. Thus, 499’s depth, breath and vision about the colonization back then and its connection to the sociopolitical crisis that exists today in Mexico, to be blunt, floored this writer. 499 captures the savagery of the sacking of Aztec civilization without gratuitous gore yet the movie captures savagery that can chill to the bone.
For this review, this reviewer leaned on the production notes about the movie, especially the Rodrigo Reyes interview, whose comments are in italics.
He didn’t want a movie that relied on talking heads of experts nor one restricted by the limits of straight reporting. I was looking for another way to portray reality, one that was not afraid to use all the tools of cinema to dig deeper and cut beyond the limits of reportage. I didn’t want to make a film full of academic experts. Who knows better than the real people who are living with the worst consequences of the colonial nightmare? Who better than them to confront this history?
The cinematic image has a unique magical power. Suddenly, on-screen, centuries co-mingle and the conquistador walks the earth again, confronting the stories of survivors. This felt so much more provocative and enriching than taking a traditional approach. What better witness to the lives of the real people portrayed in the film than the Conquistador? He is the one that needs to learn the most.
His father influenced his passionate interests. In Mexico, the conquest is he biggest moment in our historical imagination, a traumatic and cataclysmic event that continues to send shock waves through to the present. With the approach of the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Capitol of Tenochtitlan, I started thinking about the echoes of this event from the sixteenth in our current era. I realized there were clear links between contemporary reality in Mexico and the most egregious and violent facets of the Spanish conquest.
The colonial project continues, and the question is: Why? Why is it that long after the Spanish have left, Mexico continues to perpetuate this exploitation?
The idea of a trans-temporal Conquistador meeting modern Mexicans suddenly made a lot of sense. It seems a reasonable, and even necessary image, in a context where 10 women are murdered each day with almost complete impunity, where sixty thousand people have been disappeared by organized crime, often in collusion with the government. The nightmare of the present calls for imagination. We need a creative solution to come to grips with the madness sweeping through my country.
Director: Rodrigo Reyes
Screenwriter: Rodrigo Reyes, Lorena Padilla
Cast: Eduardo San Juan Breña
Cinematographer: Alejandro Mejía, AMC
Editors: Andrea Chignoli, Daniel Chávez Ontiveros
Music: Pablo Mondragón
Producers: Inti Cordera, Andrew Houchens
Executive Producers:Steve Holmgren, Carter Logan
Gregg W. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com