In the hybrid documentary drama 499, director Rodrigo Reyes melds fiction and nonfiction. Using a narrator from the past and the convention of time travel, the director comments upon present-day tragedies in Mexico.
He suggests that the country is steeped in the murderous history of Spanish colonialism and that that influences contemporary kidnappings and killings. To present this thesis, Reyes selects a story-teller who investigates the present through the lens of the past.
Caught in modern-day Mexico, a 16th-century conquistador (Eduardo San Juan) washes up on the shoreline of Veracruz. He is confused and lost. Reyes has selected him as the traveler to tie past infamies against the Aztecs and their slaves to horrific, current crimes against Mexicans.
Thus, the character is an instrument through which we gain clarity and empathy. As he learns, we learn. Finally, Reyes’ hope remains to bring cessation to Mexican civil strife and the government corruption that permits it.
However, Reyes posits that before cessation can occur, two things must happen. First, one must acknowledge the source of the blood strife. This relates to colonial bigotry. Second, one must repent of that bigotry to enforce a correction and healing.
As the conquistador wanders, questioning the unrecognizable culture he finds himself in and hoping to find his way back, he recalls how the conquistadors used the indigenous people against the Aztec chieftains. In other words, they turned the Aztecs against each other to divide and conquer.
With these remembrances he stumbles upon bereaved relatives of murdered activists. He captures poignant stories during interviews. Some reveal how criminal drug cartels violently punished journalist whistleblowers. And through interview clips, we hear from families how such killings intimidate the community into silence.
Along the way, he explores strip clubs while recalling the Spanish soldiers’ sexual predation upon indigenous women. The story reflects accounts from four-hundred-year-old records. Reyes aligns these with current interviews. Relatives recount abuse by the drug cartels. One mother’s account of her daughter’s autopsy describes the tortuous wounds that killed her.
Likewise, the conquistador relates blood-filled incidents from the past. Reyes cleverly employs comparison and contrast. Using interviews of those whose loved ones the cartels brutalized, he fashions a mosaic of both past and present incidents. Power ruled then and now. Fear ruled then and now. Inhumanity ruled then and now.
Regardless of how advanced the society, the craven impulse to control using death remains. In effect Reyes reveals that for Mexico, time stands still. And colonialism’s worst evils continue. With impunity criminals murder and pillage, supported by government officials. In the past, the soldiers framed themselves as heroes and killed in the name of God. Today, human decency and justice are hard won. Lawlessness rules, if allowed.
The director uses magical realism well for his purpose. He draws an interesting analogy between the destruction of the Aztec civilization and of the lower classes of Mexican indigenous culture. In both cases the power elite effects this devastation for money. Sadly, the poor become the casualties of the gangs: in government, in cartels.
The carefully crafted cinematography and dream-like style of the film serve as a backdrop as the beauty and pacing reinforce hope in the struggle. As migrants, activists, and grieving family persevere, community sustains them.
499 received the “Best Cinematography in a Documentary Film” award at the Tribeca Film Festival, reflecting the jurists’ appreciation of this hybrid. Certainly, the filmmakers’ seamless merging of a fictional, representative character with today’s society presents a new revelation about the bloodshed of the “disappeared.”
499 also won a Special Jury Prize in the International Feature Documentary Awards at Hot Docs.