On Friday, August 13, the far-right wing Spanish party VOX published the following post on their Facebook page: “On a day like today, 500 years ago, a Spanish troop led by Hernán Cortés and native allies obtained the surrender of Tenochtitlán, México. In that way, Spain freed millions of people from the Aztec’s bloody reign of terror” (translated from the original Spanish).
Talk about revisionist history!
Opening theatrically in New York this weekend followed by a national rollout in the next couple of weeks, Rodrigo Reyes’s documentary-fiction hybrid 499 offers a corrective to such often-repeated nonsense. Reyes acknowledges the historical fact that, yes, the conquistadors found willing partners in the many indigenous communities oppressed by the Aztecs. But as Reyes shows throughout his film, the effects of that singular, bloody event are still being felt to this day, with the violence of the Spanish conqueror replaced by the violence of the many invading forces that have attacked Mexico since the fall of Tenochtitlán, as well as through the oppression of México’s own rulers, and now by the drug cartels.
Divided in six chapters, 499 opens with the arrival of a nameless conquistador in full regalia (superbly played by Eduardo San Juan Breña) on the beaches of Veracruz, 499 years after his ship, full of gold and treasures, sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Disoriented, surrounded by such strange sights as a plastic cup and a four-wheel-drive doing wheelies on the sand, this living ghost decides to follow Cortez’s route towards the former Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, in hopes of reuniting with his people. He wanders into a primary school where he tells the children gathered in the schoolyard that he will conquer them in the name of God… and immediately loses his voice. And even though we hear his thoughts in voice-over throughout the film, he remains voiceless, defenseless, forced to listen to the stories the many men and women he meets on his journey tell him about life in today’s Mexico.
In his journey, the conquistador meets the son of a murdered journalist and activist; a policewoman in charge of exhuming the bodies of those buried in anonymous mass graves and whose son, a policeman himself, disappeared several years ago leaving behind a pregnant wife; a group of Central American migrants, one of them escaping from the MS-13, as they prepare to jump aboard La Bestia on their way to the United States (“they chase the promise of glory,” remarks the conquistador); a former member of the Army who now offers his services to the highest bidder, talking matter-of-factly about the art of torture and proudly showing the conquistador his three favorite guns; a mother who, in harrowing detail, describes how her daughter was kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed by a couple of neighbors to later be set free by a corrupt judicial system. Halfway through his journey, he is captured and eventually set free by members of an indigenous auto-defense group in the hills of the Sierra Madre.
Reyes does not identify these individuals by name until the end credits; he wants their stories to be emblematic of the violence that is embedded in the country’s social fabric. And yet, as you hear these stories and the conquistador’s reminiscences and musings—his use of the word savages to describe the communities he encountered 500 years ago included—you realize that in spite of the almost physical, political and even social violence inflicted on Mexico’s indigenous population throughout the centuries, they resisted. Every face the conquistador encounters bears the features of their ancestors. Their language and such traditions as the Danza de los Voladores are alive and well, living side by side with, and more often than not incorporated into, the traditions brought over by the Spanish and their descendants.
As the conquistador approaches the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, not only does he encounter pilgrims walking on their knees from distances far and wide but also dancers in their Danza Azteca outfits. Overwhelmed by these images, by these voices, the conquistador at the end leaves behind his belligerence and arrogance and comes to understand, belatedly, the role he and his countrymen played in shaping the destiny of this country.
Shot in widescreen by Alejandro Mejía, 499 is an anti-epic. In its use of the anamorphic lens, it criticizes the triumphalist tone of such films about conquerors and the conquered as Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). In capturing the beauty of Mexico’s landscape and rural setting, Reyes and Mejía, like Fernanda Valadez before them in Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares), heighten the sense of nature being a silent witness to the atrocities perpetrated in its midst while staying oblivious to it. They even undermine the grandiosity, the larger-than-life scope of the traditional epic film once the conquistador arrives in Mexico City with its homeless encampments, viaducts, traffic jams, streets and sidewalks overflowing with people and gigantic landfills where once a lake thrived.
499 confronts the descendants of the conquerors and the conquered with the ghosts of their past. Reyes’s film may be a reflection on the long-lasting legacy of colonialism in Mexico. But the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia confront that same legacy day after day, year after year. The stories told, the visions shared are unique to Mexico but they also echo around the world.