It’s a rare thing to find a film that is so brilliantly artistic that it’s challenging to look at as simply film at all, but more as a moving painting, a living work of art, the closest thing to every tenant of magical realism brought to life. Director Rodrigo Reyes in his hybrid magical-realist-documentary film, 499, has somehow managed to tap directly into that vein with all the precision of a hospital technician placing an IV.
499 follows a time-displaced soldier (Eduardo San Juan Breña) of Cortez’s conquista as he travels through modern Mexico almost 500 years to the day of the colonization of the Aztec Empire. Split into seven vignettes, each a respective region of Mexico, following the original journey from the coastline of Veracruz to Mexico City, the former site of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. On his journey, mute and still full of hateful prejudice against the Mexican people, he wanders in and out of the lives and experiences of several very real people, listening to their stories of the horrors of the modern cartel corrupted Mexico, and slowly realizing the similarities between these new heartbreaks and the violent greed of the Spanish Conquista.
The documentary-style interviews blend in seamlessly with the wanderings and mental musings of the lost soldier; so well, in fact, that I almost didn’t notice we were slipping into a very real story until the name popped up under the first speaker’s face. The subsequent genre-breaking narratives paint a sorrowful picture of corruption, loss, and injustice levied upon the families of journalists, social activists, migrants battling coyotes and death by train and dehydration in search of an escape northward, a former soldier, and a traumatized mother. Each story outdoes the last, with the final being one of the, if not the most horrific tale of child abuse, murder, and horrendous indifference by the authorities that allegedly “protect” us that I’ve ever seen recited publicly. The things done to that poor girl, and then passively to her mother, are terrible; disturbing; and frankly; fucking abominable.
This is what makes 499 so difficult to review as a work of cinema alone. You can review Alejandro Mejía’s cinematography, phenomenal, the costuming of the soldier, accurate and well made, and editors Andrea Chignoli and Daniel Chávez Ontiveros’ pacing, a bit drawn out but not overly so; but how could anyone feel confident enough, privileged enough, to critique the lives and very real stories and pain of others? Some stories that haven’t even ended yet. Many, that never will.
It is clearly the hope of those involved in this project that the viewer, like the soldier, will end this guided witness tour of the ignored and deeply systemic atrocities plaguing the people of Mexico in tears, and hopefully with empathy. The lost soldier may be mute and powerless against the uroboros of greed, lust for power, and violence that seemingly has been almost unchanged in five-hundred years; only shifting forms, a serpent shedding its skin, silver armor replaced with kevlar and swords with guns, but we do not have to be. Nor should we be. Especially when some powers-that-be would prefer us to do so, and turn these humans and their memories into monsters and nightmares.
499 is a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and Hot Docs selection.