Mexican cinema is a complete enigma to me, so I was excited to hear in March that Criterion was releasing Canoa: A Shameful Memory, directed by Felipe Cazals. I’d never heard of the film before it showed up on Criterion’s release schedule, but it seemed like a fascinating entry point. The film is a brutal political masterpiece, from a decade filled with engaging political dramas that reacted to real-life turmoil.
In the U.S., 1968 is considered one of the worst years our nation ever faced. But it was actually one of the most difficult years the entire world faced. In Mexico, the government was preparing to host the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. But the country was also in the midst of the “Dirty War,” a conflict between left-wing groups and the government. One of the major events of the period was the Tlateloco Massacre, when between 300 and 400 people were killed in a massive demonstration 10 days before the Games opened.
Around this time, a little-known tragedy took place, when five employees of the Autonomous University of Puebla visited the tiny town of San Miguel Canoa, near Puebla, the capital city of the State of Puebla. The town was controlled by a priest who convinced the townspeople that students from the university were communists who came to steal from them. Even though they weren’t students and just hoped to hike a nearby mountain, mob justice took over and three of the five men were killed.
Since the Mexican film industry was still heavily controlled by the government at this time, Cazals couldn’t tell the story of the Tlateloco massacre. Instead, he and writer Tomas Perez Turrent chose the incident in Canoa because of the glaring parallels between the events. It happened just weeks before Tlateloco.
Cazals and Turrent tell the story in the most precise, frank manner, bringing the movie as close to a documentary style as possible. We know that there will be a tragedy – Calzals shows us the funeral procession and photos of the massacre before the title – but it’s still fascinating how it unfolds. He presents both sides of the story, first spending nearly 40 minutes of the film establishing the tense climate in Canoa. Only then are we introduced to the five men whose lives will be destroyed or permanently damaged.
The director breaks the fourth wall, with a citizen of the town speaking directly to the audience. What makes the entire film feel even more uneasy than its subject is seeing that our narrator takes part in the horrors that unfold. And when the tragedy comes, the brutality of it is shocking. Canoa comes from a long line of films about mob justice-gone-bad, but few of them result in violence this extreme. Calzals shows how incredibly quickly things can go from “insinuations” from a priest to brutal street violence. Were he to hold back at all, his message would be missed.
Considering that Canoa: A Shameful Memory is considered one of the greatest films of the era from Mexico, it’s not surprising that a wonderful restoration of this film took place. Criterion’s Blu-Ray presents the movie as a newly restored 4K digital transfer supervised by Cazals.
While the transfer is great, the extras are really disappointing. Here’s what we get:
- Guillermo Del Toro Introduction – For just over three minutes, Del Toro provides a quick overview of the film and why it’s held in such high regard in Mexico. It’s useful, but would have been better if it was longer.
- Felipe Cazals and Alfonso Cuaron – This is a conversation between the two directors in Spanish that runs 55 minutes. It was recorded at a film festival in March 2016. It’s a fascinating talk between two filmmakers about the craft and the history of Canoa.
- A Devil In Disguise – Fernanda Solozarno’s essay provides more info on the film and puts it in historical context.
The biggest disappointment of the disc isn’t the film, which is important today. We might be far removed from the specific historical context, but the film is frightfully relevant to today’s world, where the outsider is often shunned. However, the disc itself should have included more on Mexican cinema and the historical events that inspired Canoa.
This is a director-approved edition, so Cazals might have wanted the film to stand on its own, but Criterion has set the bar high on supplements and it’s disappointing when a title – especially one as great as this – gets the short end of a stick.