Que Viva Mexico! isn’t, strictly speaking, a Sergei Eisenstein film so much as a mess of raw footage subject to infinite interpretation, repeatedly re-offered to the public in speculative form. This beleaguered Soviet take on life south of the border may rise yet again: a fundraising initiative is underway to bring together all the footage — globally dispersed for years, some of it apparently long thought lost — for the ultimate restoration. Until now it’s manifested itself as various ‘30s shorts (an angry Upton Sinclair paid Sol Lesser to assemble two medium-length features and one short from the reams of footage), Grigori Alexandrov’s 1979 assemblage and Oleg Kovalov’s 1998 recut. The 1979 cut — the default for most people — remains a fascinating hybrid creation in its own right.
Eisenstein went to Mexico after signing a contract with Upton Sinclair to produce a non-political document; the ensuing production saw him shooting reams of footage and only figuring out what the film’s six-part structure should be by the time a completed product was due. That Apocalpyse Now-lite debacle foreshadowed a decade-long career downturn: his next film, Bezhin Meadow, also derailed from the top down; the propagandistically suitable Alexander Nevsky was pulled as soon as a non-aggression pact with Germany was signed.
Alexandrov began collaborating with Eisenstein in 1921; sent together to Hollywood, their 1930-31 detour in Mexico marked their last collaboration. No one could foresee that Alexandrov would become one of the most successful ‘30s directors of Soviet crowd-pleasers (his Volga Volga was reportedly Stalin’s favorite film; he sent a copy to FDR in 1942), while Eisenstein had already unexpectedly peaked. A capable light-entertainment hack, Alexandrov wasn’t an intuitive Eisenstein collaborator; his career and reputation faded after Stalin’s death. The ‘70s release of the footage — bookended by an aged Alexandrov, now a long-time professor, narrating a sanitized version of how the production fell apart — carries a certain nostalgic charm for viewers familiar with Alexandrov’s wildly popular work.
The 1979 release came four years after Battleship Potemkin had been re-issued with a score consisting of hastily chopped-together Shostakovich and other classical miscellany; Que Viva Mexico! restoration’s music is clearly – if surreally – of the moment, creating Communist kitsch that travels 50 years, forwards and backwards. No matter what’s on-screen, it’s awfully odd to hear vaguely Russian takes on Mexican folk songs: singing choirs, languid guitars, trumpets, all coated with a generic “ethnic sheen,” like Ennio Morricone left out in the sun too long.
The footage is sometimes basic ethnography lightly staged, and (more interestingly) sometimes a series of grotesque distortions foreshadowing Eisenstein’s later Ivan The Terrible work. In the striking opening prologue, a series of foreground/background juxtapositions where a face can be as large as the pyramid behind it. Extreme close-ups compose faces against carved pyramid icons, rendering them exactly the same. Throughout, you get less of a sense of “Mexico” than generic exoticism and genre play. Early footage of topless women and carefree men paddling along through the forest could be swapped with any Polynesian fantasy of the time. In the film’s longest, most coherent and narrative section, Eisenstein stages a class-minded Mexican Western — with slight regional variations (bullets are lodged in cactus leaves until it’s time to reload) but with absolute reverence for the archetypal sight of big doors closing against even bigger mountains.
Que Viva Mexico! looks forward and backwards in Eisenstein’s career; self-flagellating religious iconography figures heavily, as in Potemkin, and there’s a strong streak of visceral cruelty and manipulation. The finale — Dia De Los Muertoes masks coming off, with healthy child and peasant faces laughing at the dessicated class skeletons who have the same thing underneath their mask as on it — is a classic shocker. The rejection of montage theory is Alexandrov’s imposition, emphasizing raw compositional qualities — much as Eisenstein himself would do in Ivan the Terrible. Que Viva Mexico! isn’t much of any one thing, but it’s a lot of little things, adding up to more than a mere curio for cinematic crate-diggers.