With its brutal, unrelenting vision of a country in chaos, Michel Franco’s New Order has divided critics and audiences alike since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its theatrical release in Mexico last year. The trailer released by Mexico’s theater chain Cinépolis stoked the fire even more with its images of a working-class rabble disrupting and wreaking havoc and bloody murder at a wedding party attended by the country’s elite.
After the Venice premiere, Franco claimed that his movie was inspired by the many urban protests taking place around the world (including Black Lives Matter) and the repressive measures taken against them. He would most probably point to the recent mass protests in Colombia and the state’s violent reaction as yet another instance.
New Order has been labelled by critics as “openly reactionary” (Carlos F. Heredero, Caimán Cuadernos de Cine), “conservative and manipulative” (Nicolás Ruiz, Código espagueti) and a “politically vacuous mess” (Sophie Maxwell, One Room with a View). Others have praised it for presenting a “hyperbole of reality” that points to “the dangers of militarization” (Ferndad Solorzano, Letras Libres) as a “stinging indictment on economic inequality” (Gary M. Kramer, Salon). Franco said he wanted his film to be politically ambiguous, but the end result is anything but.
The film opens with a montage of images of what’s to come, brief glimpses of the sadistic savagery that will bombard our eyeballs in the next 88 minutes, until it settles on the wedding party within the apparently secure confines of the house of a well-to-do family. As the revelers celebrate the wedding of Marianne (Naian González Norvind) and Alan (Dario Yeznak Bernal), drug consumption and passing of envelopes full of money included, you can hear in the distance the sound of angry protesters and gunfire.
The outside world slowly begins to creep in: green water is coming out of the faucets, and green paint is thrown at the car of one of the guests—green being the color embraced by women’s rights and pro-abortion advocates in Latin America). Rolando (Eligio Meléndez), a former employee who left the household in good standing, appears at their doorstep to seek the family’s help in paying for his wife’s heart surgery at a private clinic after being booted from the public hospital by the protesters and their wounded comrades. He is viciously dismissed by Marianne’s brother, after receiving a fraction of what he needs to pay for the operation from the family. Determined to help Rolando and pay his hospital bills in full, an angry Marianne leaves the party with Cristian (Fernando Cuautle), Rolando’s nephew, to find the streets blocked by the police, the military and the protesters.
Meanwhile, back at the mansion, a group of mostly brown, mostly indigenous protesters jump over the walls, their clothes all dirty and bloody. They begin to shoot and pummel the wedding guests as they pillage and trash the house, stealing whatever valuables they can get their hands on, spray-painting the walls with such slogans as “putos ricos,” the family’s servants and guards joining them in the mayhem. Afterwards, radio broadcasts and a montage of the aftermath—burnt cars, helicopters flying above, stores looted, and bodies piled everywhere—set the stage for what’s to come.
After finding refuge in Rolando’s house, Marianne is kidnapped by a rogue band of soldiers who imprison and torture her alongside other members of Mexico’s privileged class, numbers painted on their foreheads. Rolando and his family deal with a different but equally dehumanizing type of repression: the willy-nilly denial of access to certain streets and goods, the capricious curfew hours, the need to apply for work permits, and even death. Turns out that the new order is more of the same, this time in the hands of the military (which in the last decade has gained power and influence thanks to the likes of Enrique Peña Nieto and Andrés Manuel López Obrador).
And yet, the acts inflicted upon Marianne and her fellow inmates are so stomach-churning, so unpleasant and nasty, that you can’t avoid but feel that the working class is getting off easy in this universe. And, hence, my problem with Franco’s so-called ambiguity. Because no matter how impersonal his directorial touch, how cold his approach, by singling out Marianne as a good soul, as one undeserving of this punishment, you not only end up feeling sorry for her, but also her fellow One Percenters. You can’t help but ask where Franco’s sympathies truly lie, especially given those early scenes at the mansion.
From Bolivian director Jorge Sanjines and his Grupo Ukamau collective (which created films by and for the peasant and working class in the Andes) to Felipe Cazals’ groundbreaking Canoa: a Shameful Memory (1976, about the assassination of five students in Puebla) to, more recently, Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona (whose story of a Guatemalan general’s family besieged by protesters and the title character makes for an interesting comparison with Franco’s film), Latin American cinema has a strong, rich tradition of politically committed and engaged films. With New Order, Franco sticks his middle finger to that tradition.
He refuses to provide a context for these protests and to the military’s brutal reaction. He expects us to connect the dots: inequality, corruption, Ayotzinapa—take your pick. For Franco, mass protests and revolutions do not lead to justice and fairness but to more violence and degradation and the preservation of the status quo. Human beings are irredeemable regardless of class, race and creed. Abandon hope all who enter here. Yeah, tell that to the people of Chile, who overwhelmingly voted for a left-leaning assembly to replace the Pinochet-era constitution, after years of mostly peaceful protests that were met with violence by the armed forces.
Critics have had the gall of comparing this morally empty film to Bong Joon-Ho’s far superior, far more empathetic Parasite. If anything, in its misguided and cynical point-of-view, New Order feels like a more extreme and even more reactionary cousin to Todd Phillips’ overrated Joker, another critique of class struggle, this time disguised as the origin story of a mentally unstable man on his way to becoming a superhero’s nemesis. In both films, the have-nots are a faceless and nameless horde of malcontents, while the rich and privileged are addressed by first and last name.
But at least in Joker, the revolution (if you want to call it that) was inspired by a madman. In Michel Franco’s relentlessly bleak and nihilistic worldview, only those with the largest weapons and the right skin tone will come out on top.
Featured image: Screenshot from Michel Franco’s ‘New Order’/NEON