Art imitates life in scathing film on Mexico leaders

For the first time in 71 years of power, the PRI is explicitly criticized in a daring movie.

After viewing the controversial new movie, "La Ley de Herodes," ("Herod's Law") a biting satire on corruption and impunity in the Mexican political system, Karime Gelo decided she was glad the film was done in a sarcastic tone.

"If this theme were treated seriously, you would have to cry," says the Mexico City public-relations agent. "The movie may be set in the past, but we Mexicans know that, sadly, it's very much the story of today. What has changed is that finally movies can be made that talk about it."

In a departure from even the recent past, when Mexican moviemaking was dominated by fanciful dramas and romance comedies, movie theaters from Tijuana to Tapachula are suddenly bursting with homespun tales tackling the dark realities of contemporary Mexico.

The movies, along with theater, books, magazines, radio, and even cartoons, attest to a blossoming of critical expression in a country where artistic or journalistic attacks on politics were taboo. Public officials - from the president on down - were off-limits, even to humorists.

But to the chagrin of some public officials, the theaters showing the hardest-hitting products of what is being called "the new Mexican cinema" are packed. Since its release three weeks ago - and despite competition from Oscar nominees - "Ley de Herodes" has been seen by a million Mexicans. It was voted best Latin American film at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.

Another tale of the corruption and indemnity Mexicans live with, "Todo el Poder," ("All the Power") became an instant hit after its January release. In a country where domestic productions rarely attract 100,000 viewers, it has sold more than 2.5 million tickets and is still going strong.

"Todo el Poder" studies one of Mexico's most disheartening realities: that much of the crime its citizens face is perpetrated either by the police themselves or by gangs with official protection. The movie, about a filmmaker who takes on a band of criminals with high-level protection, is based loosely on actual events. Director Fernando Sariana began toying with the movie's concept after being robbed at gunpoint four times in Mexico City.

"Ley de Herodes" chronicles the rise of Jun Vargas, a sleepy junkyard operator whose lust for power is awakened when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) taps him to become mayor of a troublesome desert outpost he's never seen. At first the new mayor of San Pedro de los Saguaros is idealistic. Set on bringing the town the "modernity and social justice" the PRI trumpets as its theme, he quickly learns the system works otherwise.

Soon he is bribing, blackmailing, even killing to consolidate his power. By the end of the movie his corrupt ways are not only tolerated but rewarded: He has taken a seat in the Mexican Congress.

Jun Vargas is a fictional character, but the PRI, which has ruled Mexico for 71 years, is not. That may explain why "Ley de Herodes" suffered several burial attempts by the government - efforts that only sharpened the movie's appeal.

"More than the picture itself, what happened around it is what piqued public interest, and what in the long run will mean more freedom for Mexican cinema," says Luis Estrada, the movie's director and producer.

A compact man with a thick mustache like his character Jun, Mr. Estrada says motion pictures have been slower than other arts in experimenting with the new freedoms offered by what he calls a "Mexico in transition." Much of the reason for that, he says, is that as Hollywood's dominance south of the border has grown since approval of NAFTA, Mexican filmmakers have become more dependent on government funding.

"Even more than overt controls, we have been held back by a terrible self- censorship," Estrada says.

"Ley de Herodes" was made for $1.4 million, 60 percent of which was put up by the government through the Mexican Film Institute (Imcine). Filming went smoothly, and it was not until the finished product reached the distribution stage that the movie hit choppy waters.

With word circulating that the movie openly and repeatedly referred to the PRI and showed its familiar three-color logo, Imcine tried to cancel the film's showing at the Acapulco Film Festival. It then attempted to limit the movie's opening to only two Mexico City theaters without Estrada's knowledge. And finally, it tried to convince Estrada to hold off the general release until 2001 - well after this July's presidential election.

When the government's campaign began drawing international attention, Imcine threw in the towel and sold back its majority interest in the movie to Estrada, giving him full control over distribution. With full-page ads asking, "Why don't they want you to see it?" the controversial movie debuted in 200 theaters.

Despite the ham-handed censorship attempts and the movie's early box-office success, few Mexicans who have seen "Ley de Herodes" think it will have any impact on voters in July.

"It's refreshing to see these things taken up in a movie, but it isn't anything we didn't already know," says Ral Guerrero, a Mexico City gym instructor. "Movies don't reach into the small towns and social classes that remain the PRI's force," adds Pierre Mion, a Mexico City bank employee. "It's not anything for [the PRI] to worry about."

Estrada agrees, noting that over the past two decades, Mexican cinema has shrunk from a vehicle of mass entertainment to a luxury for the middle and upper classes. He says the $4 tickets "may sound cheap to an American or a European, but here it's still a day's minimum wage."

And just because his movie may be the first to address Mexico's political system, that doesn't mean it will be some revelation to Mexican voters, Estrada says.

"No one will walk out of the theater and declare, 'Oh my, there is corruption in my country,' " he says with the same ironic tone that permeates his production.

"The fact is that reality is much more impressive than anything you could show people in a movie."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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