Released in 1976, Canoa: A Shameful Memory is considered a milestone of Mexican cinema, influencing future filmmakers (Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón both appear in supplements on this new release) and setting a standard for the local industry to follow. Felipe Casals’ innovative, probing docudrama is equal parts Costa-Gavras and Francesco Rosi. It's dramatic and real and maybe a little long in the tooth, but fascinating all the same. Also, relevant to our times--and like most older films that maintain their bite, I might add, sadly so.
Based on a real-life incident from the mid-1960s, Canoa is essentially a story of small-town hysteria and political bullying. Taking place in the rural village that gives the film its name, Canoa centers around one night, including the preamble and the aftermath, when a terrible crime occurs. The catalyst is the arrival of a handful of university workers visiting the region to hike in its hills. They get off the bus at the start a torrential rainstorm, the severity of which prevents them from traveling further before sunrise. Word of the strangers spreads quickly, especially when they are refused shelter by the town sheriff and the local priest (Enrique Lucero)--a miniature dictator who has been squeezing the town dry for years. His anti-communist rhetoric, combined with his acute paranoia, misleads his congregation into believing the group are activist students who have come to undermine the Catholic church. As tails of their intentions become exaggerated, a mob forms and does what a mob does, ending in several murders.
Casals crafts Canoa: A Shameful Memory like a faux documentary, complete with an off-screen narrator and an on-screen witness (Salvador Sánchez). The latter is the most compelling part of the film. A worker from Canoa, the witness gives us the inside dope on town politics, speaking directly to the camera, as much a tour guide as an interview subject. His self-aware, glib cynicism colors the whole of the picture. He speaks with both the benefit of hindsight and distance. Granted, no one asks where he was on the night in question, and we aren’t entirely sure of where he fits in all of this. Not that it matters. He is the outside observer, disgusted yet not surprised. Even in the film's denouement, he already sees the powers that be turning tragedy into opportunity.
This witness basically sets the tone for Canoa. The movie is both real and unreal, an accurate depiction of events and yet a fictional re-creation of the same. We have access to closed-room machinations with the priest and his flunkies, a narrative conceit unavailable in a true documentary, not to mention an artful POV shot that reminds us that the minister is the shadowy villain behind the whole thing, the noirish lighting shaking off the cinematic grit that otherwise marks the picture. When it comes down to it, most of Canoa’s visuals conform more to the standards of fictional drama than any verité aesthetics. We also see Cazals push the limits of his budget in some of the performances, particularly the university workers, whose expositional scenes in the city are amateurish and contrived. Canoa’s fundamental cinematic constraints are showing.
The one exception is the violence that comes in the final act, when the mob comes for the unsuspecting visitors, breaking down the door of the meager shelter they found. Here Casals pulls no punches, embracing the terrible events in all their lifelike horror. The attack is vicious and bloody, and the brutality of it is appropriately unsettling. By the time the townspeople come for the outsiders, the truth of their visit is no longer important. In fact, to their minds, the boys’ explanation for coming this way is exactly something lying communists would say to save their skins. The violence is drawn-out and cruel, and Canoa doesn't shy away from some of the harsher details. As shown here, the hive mind succumbs to its most primitive impulses, trading its humanity for self-preservation.
But is it self-preservation? Is it even self-serving? They think so, but if we reconsider the info we got at the start of Canoa, these farmers make no real money, and what little they have is siphoned off by the clergy and funneled to its political cronies, sometimes as a trade-off for delivering such basic conveniences as electricity and telephones, other times for delivering nothing at all, the price of an empty promise. That the priest distracts from this thievery by inspiring a fear of the "other" should be all too familiar. Ignore my hand in your pocket, because that other guy is going to steal what I want before I do. And then pay me to "protect" you. Or show me how strong you are by protecting yourselves, you freeloaders!
So, despite showing its age in filmmaking, Canoa: A Shameful Memory remains as potent as ever. Swap its decades-old setting for a current one, wherever xenophobia and oppressive rhetoric holds sway, and you’ll find a cautionary tale for our era. One would have hoped that in these "enlightened" times we would be better, that Canoa would be considered fantasy rather than realism, and that such prejudices would have been rooted out--if not in the 1960s then at the end of the Cold War--but if the first few months of 2017 have shown us anything, we haven't really evolved much at all, and we’re getting busy creating a few new shameful memories of our own.
This disc proved by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.