Canoa is a historical drama about the horror of history, made all the more frightening because it is based on a true story.
By Matt Hanson
On September 14, 1968, in the small rural Mexican town of San Miguel Canoa, a group of visiting university employees were beaten to death by a mob of angry villagers. During this period there were constant clashes between students and the Mexican government in Mexico City; it was two weeks before the brutal Tlatelolco massacre. In 1976, the infamous tragedy in Canoa inspired a landmark in Mexican cinema: director Felipe Cazals’ harrowingly realistic film Canoa: A Shameful Memory, now available on DVD from Criterion.
The film sticks close to verisimilitude in its structure and story line. A group of rambunctious, affable university employees in nearby Puebla decide to take the bus out town in order to climb Malinche, the legendary mountain that looms over the remote village of Canoa. They’re just kids, barely out of their teens. Aware of — and sympathetic to — the student riots in Mexico City, they don’t have any particular agenda other than a fun weekend out in the country. The nightmare that overtakes their trip unfolds with tension and suspense; we already know what will happen to the jovial bunch, but not why.
We are introduced to Canoa’s landscape and its fatalistic inhabitants with documentary objectivity, the well-designed compositions subtly reminding viewers how foreigners appear in the villager’s eyes. At times, the locals glance at the students and whisper to the camera. Cazals’s approach is determinedly static; the voiceover narration serves up information with an eerie matter-of-factness.
Canoa’s landscape is hardscrabble, to put it mildly. Weary farmers stare directly into the camera (a in Godard’s agitprop films, but without any French theorizing), looks that testify to the bleakness of their lives: paltry, unreliable crops, lack of resources, sub-par educational system, endemic illiteracy, and a general mood of stoic despair.
One of the farmers becomes our unofficial narrator, stepping out of the background and telling us point blank that “this town’s been jumpy for weeks … some bad shit is going to go down here soon.” The location shots of Canoa are rooted in the specificity of time and place, but its psychic desolation and political unrest feel timeless and universal.
Even worse than the arid terrain is the influence of the corrupt local church, which is spoken of apprehensively or with helpless outrage. We are not given much to go on about the church’s power, other than its parasitic relationship to the community and its coziness with the federal government. (An official disingenuously praises the church as a “modernizing” force.) An unidentified priest pulls the strings in Canoa, fusing ‘official’ religious and political roles until it’s impossible to tell them apart: given his bullying rule of the town, he comes off as a colonialist clad in vestments.
We are bitterly informed that the church demands money and resources, such as land and wheat, from the struggling community. The wealth is used to build token gestures of civic improvement, such as a water fountain (which the farmers are charged to access) and installing loudspeakers above the roofs, which are principally used to broadcast propaganda and embarrass struggling citizens. It’s clear that the priest is after more than saving people’s immortal souls; he also wants what’s in their wallets as well as their votes for the next rigged election. Played with icy distance by the esteemed actor Enrique Lucero, the priest says little, except for platitudes. Unsettlingly, he wears thick dark sunglasses at all times, even during a mass.
The turmoil in Mexico City, alluded to in the film principally through snippets of radio programs and casual quotes from newspapers, provides the church with plenty of fuel to feed growing panic over the threat of Communist infiltration in Canoa. The authorities insist that these mysterious, ever-lurking traitors want to hoist their flag, “red like hell and black as sin,” above the church, and thereby blaspheme God and country. There may be plenty of people in Canoa who don’t approve of the priest or his oppressive policies, but there are just as many, if not more, who are taken in by his infernal rhetoric.
When the bus arrives at Canoa, a heavy rain forces the boys to seek shelter for the night. The locals are suspicious of the visitors. Everyone, including the priest, who doesn’t even bother to check their identities, turns them away. Word gets out that these strangers are from “the university” and an angry mob begins to build, furiously shouting words like “antichrist” and chanting the name of “San Miguel,” whom these assumed Communists are supposedly bent on blaspheming. One insinuation leads to another, wild rumors swirl that these outsiders are committing crimes, consorting with the local women, and refusing to pay for their sodas and peanuts at the local shop. Pitchforks raised and torches flickering, the mob roars through the streets looking to punish the interlopers; it is not about to let mistaken identity get in the way of its righteous bloodlust.
The film was made years after the event, but the precise, economical script is meticulous in terms of following the known facts and timeline. Cazals brilliantly chose to tell this story via a detached, reportorial perspective, which gives the film a haunting vividness and mounting inevitability that wouldn’t be out of place in an agonizing horror film. And, at its core, that is just what Canoa is: a vibrant historical drama about the terror of history, made all the more frightening because it is based on a true story.
In exclusive interviews for Criterion’s new release, Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, great Mexican directors who first saw the film as young cinephiles, recall the spellbinding experience of Canoa’s initial release and praise it as a tremendous step forward for Mexican cinema. No one had the courage to tell this kind of story before, not only to examine villager’s lives and faces so directly, but to offer a scrupulous account of the seething paranoia and hysteria of this difficult period in Mexican history. Forty years after the fact, Canoa still has much to remind us about the causes of political chaos and who pays the ultimate price.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.