Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976)

Religion and politics collide in frightening ways in this based-on-a-true-story ‘docu-drama’ that ranks as one of Mexican cinema’s greatest films.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dir. Felipe Cazals
1976 | Mexico | Drama/History | 115 mins | 1.85:1 | Spanish
NC16 (passed clean) for violence and disturbing scenes

Cast: Enrique Lucero, Salvador Sanchez, Ernesto Gomez Cruz
Plot: A group of friends arrives in a small town during a hiking expedition. Once there, the local priest accuses them of being communist agitators on the run and rallies the townsfolk to lynch them.
Awards: Won Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize (Berlin)
Source: Janus Films/Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature/Disturbing
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Review #1,794

(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)

Spoilers: No

This is truly, truly astonishing filmmaking, and it took me several days to realise it.  Although it isn’t a film I would revisit again (not at least after some years…), there is something so terrifying and enigmatic about Canoa: A Shameful Memory that it compels, or perhaps, dares you to see it again.

Like a haunting piece of art, this one will seep deep within the recesses of your mind.  Thanks to the Criterion Collection, one of Mexican cinema’s greatest films is now made accessible to cinephiles.

No doubt a significant milestone, Canoa brings together religion and politics in frightening ways, and it is based on a true story (the 1968 San Miguel Canoa massacre) that has since been regarded as not just a defining marker of Mexico’s volatile political history (foreshadowing the infamous Tlatelolco student massacre that happened only a fortnight later), but also an extremely potent cautionary tale.

It is a strong warning for us to take seriously the consequences of pre/mis-judging people’s intentions, and the implications of fake news.  Despite being more than 40 years old, Canoa is eerily prescient of our times—the self-righteous witch-hunting, the blind faith in (religious) authority, the right to do what is ‘politically right’, etc.

Directed by Felipe Cazals, then an emerging filmmaker who is one generation senior to the likes of Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, Canoa works with an unconventional form and structure that may prove to be distancing—or perhaps disorienting—at first, but when you come to think of it, it does feel like an audacious approach to docu-drama style filmmaking (at least at that point in Mexican cinema).

For instance, although the film intentionally shows the tragic aftermath of the massacre in the prologue, its dramatisation of the events leading up to it remains incredibly suspenseful, in what is a masterful evocation of fate rearing its ugly head.

What is remarkable is that the film doesn’t give us any back story to the victims—they are simply portrayed as a group of young men working for a nearby university who travel to Canoa in order to scale a mountain, but due to a late night storm, they decide to seek shelter in the town—yet we fear for their lives as strong anti-Communist sentiments stirred up by an authoritarian priest who governs the town causes the mostly uneducated folk to commit a brutal lynching against what they think are ‘student transgressors’.

Cazals interweaves ‘interviews’ of a local who speaks directly to the camera about the geography and demographics of this isolated town.  This tonal contrast is drastic, and at times bewildering, but it is quite astonishing how the director was able to pull everything off—the documentary aspects as well as dramatic re-enactments that incorporate thriller and horror elements.  This is quite rightly one of the scariest pictures ever made.

Grade: A+


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