Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CANOA (1976)

A group of young people go out to the countryside, to a place where they don't belong, where the people are suspicious -- and the terror begins. That's one of the more popular tropes of horror cinema for the last fifty years, dating back at least to Herschel Gordon Lewis's Two Thousand Maniacs. You can name plenty of films with the basic formula; change it from young people to just plain people and you can add more to the list. Felipe Cazals's Mexican film -- horrific in tone if not as a matter of genre -- has the advantage over most similar films in being absolutely positively based on real events. In September 1968 an all-male group of university students spent the night in the town of San Miguel Canoa when rain prevented them from climbing the Malinche, a nearby mountain. Political tensions ran high as the Mexico City Olympics approached amid fears of Communist protests and uprisings. Anti-communist hysteria raged in small towns like Canoa, and was magnified in Canoa itself, a community dominated by a reactionary priest (Enrique Lucerno in the film) who ruled the place like a feudal lord or machine boss. In recent sermons the priest had warned that Communist students would invade Canoa and desecrate its church by raising a red flag. Townspeople took the hapless hikers as the vanguard of that revolutionary invasion and took the law into their own hands. A mob a thousand strong lynched four of the students on a rainy night before order was restored.


Above: the students seek shelter from the storm.
Below: the storm.

If the subject matter is the stuff of horror, the film itself is closer to the Mondo or mockumentary genre. Cazals and screenwriter Tomas Perez Torrent claim to present events as they happens while breaking the fourth wall by having a nameless Witness  (Salvador Sanchez) make occasional comments to the camera. Sometimes the Witness corrects or subverts what purports to be official information about the local economy. Other characters sometimes address the camera, explaining who runs the town and how they exploit the poor, but the Witness always takes a more aloof, cynical tone. As the film goes on, he comes to embody all those who knew how bad things were already and how bad they'd become for the outsiders, yet did nothing about it, perhaps preferring to judge than to act.

The Witness is all talk and no action; the Priest has a mob to take action for him.

Cazals' quest for verisimilitude renders some parts of the picture almost painfully dull, especially the scenes introducing the students in all their banal innocence. Once the hikers reach Canoa, however, the film acquires a relentless momentum, aided by all the artfulness Cazals and cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr. have to work with. Canoa is sometimes described as a pseudo or semi-documentary, but Cazals never employs the gimmickry of cinema faux-vérité. Instead of shaky handheld footage identified with Paul Greengrass -- whose Bloody Sunday is an obvious point of comparison -- the location shoot is often classically composed, and the imagery, from the doom-laded rain that traps the hikers in the town to the archetypal scenes of peasants (who look more like cowboys) swarming through the streets with torches, often looks quite consciously impressionistic. It certainly conveys a mounting impression of dread as the real storm waits to break. The climax is the worst of all worlds: fear of the primitive (or the "redneck") on the scale of a zombie horde attack. When the mob finds its targets, including a townsman who tries to protect one group of students, the violence is abruptly brutal without being exploitative. I haven't watched enough horror movies this October, but Canoa goes a long way toward making up for it.

A visual joke, perhaps: an alleged Communist menaced by a symbolic sickle

Some critics have suggested that the film is a partial whitewash, since it seems to single out the tyrannical priest for blame while underplaying the role of the Mexican government and establishment in whipping up the anti-student hysteria. By having government forces come to the rescue of the remaining students, Canoa supposedly isolates the town and its little despot as bad apples rather than symptoms of something systemic, when in fact a far bloodier massacre of students took place in Mexico City itself a few weeks later. An early scene jumps forward in time to an urban funeral procession for some of the students. It's intercut to appear on a collision course with a group of marching soldiers, but when the lines meet they actually curve away from one another without incident. I've seen this interpreted as a victory for peace and order, but it could just as readily be interpreted as the two groups failing to communicate or dodging an essential issue. Likewise, at the end we see a religious festival in Canoa shortly after the rampage. The camera finds our Witness, who doesn't seem to feel like talking right then. He runs up a flight of stairs to find another documentary crew filming, and runs right back down. He turns his face from our camera before shamefacedly offering some final worthless words. Canoa may not tell the full truth of the slaughter, but the filmmakers seem to acknowledge that a full reckoning with what the massacre meant was still yet to come. But leaving the politics out, audiences anywhere should recognize the pure horror of what Cazals shows us. On some level, Canoa is a kind of masterpiece that should be better known than it is worldwide -- just as the events it shows should be.

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