Que viva Mexico is the brain child of Soviet Union film maker, Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein enlisted the help of a notable American Socialist, Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, to produce his homage to the Mexican Revolution over the elitist Spanish colonial society that had been established. It evolved into a multi-part film, a sort of anthology or proto-documentary, in which each singular part focuses on a different aspect of Mexican culture in order to present a collective history of the country, its people, and the social evolution it had experienced.
It is important to note that although the film was Eisenstein’s brainchild, he was unable to complete it. Stephen M. Hart’s critique of the film, found in A Companion to Latin American Film, states that: “The most important point to mention about Que Viva Mexico! is that it was not completed by Eisenstein, and therefore we can only speculate about what form it might finally have taken had Eisenstein been given the opportunity to edit the film.” Eisenstein’s assistant director, Grigori Alexandrov, completed the editing of the film and released it in 1979, almost fifty years after the film had been shot. Because of this watching Qué Viva Mexico is like walking through a building that has been reconstructed from its original pieces but not an exact replica. We recognize the beauty of the fragments while knowing that the vision of the original architect was much greater than we are seeing. Behind these fragments is a story; the story of the larger meaning associated with the Mexican Revolution, the defeat of capitalism and elitist Spanish colonialism.
The most common theme throughout the film is the unfair treatment of the natives and lower class by the Spanish colonists and wealthy land owners. This mistreatment was a widespread problem in Mexico because so few people help the wealth and power in Mexico. John Chasteen, author of Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, writes that “around 1900…eight million country people, mostly of indigenous heritage …sweated on the sun-drenched land to produce Mexico’s agricultural products.” (183-184) He also states that in 1910 only about three percent of Mexico’s population owned land. This disparity of wealth would have harshly assaulted the ideals of a communist like Eisenstein. Chris Robe, author of Eisenstein in America: The Qué Viva México! Debates and the Emergent Popular Front in U.S. Film Theory and Criticism, argues that Eisenstein’s motives for a film that promotes communism’s superiority over capitalism are very apparent. It is a montage to “show how revolution depends upon the collective will of the people to join forces and transcend the constraining patriarchal, capitalist ideologies of modern Mexico. The individual, although an important factor for revolution, must unite himself or herself with collective action for any significant structural change to take place.”(22) He creates a string of visual metaphors, “ideational” montages, which show the audience his perspective on the subject. A good example of this comes from a scene in which an indigenous man is shot from a low angle and in a larger scale than the ancient temple in the background. This juxtaposition emphasizes the importance of the lower classes throughout the film. Robe says that this shows Eisenstein’s belief that the collective culture which encouraged the Mexican Revolution resided within the individual citizens of Mexico, “the individual, although an important factor for revolution, must unite himself or herself with collective action for any significant structural change to take place.”
While it is obvious that Eisenstein believes the poor are being mistreated because of their social standings, an example would be the scene in ‘The Maguey Cactus’ where Maria is raped and her fiancé, Sebastian, is murdered for attempting to defend her from the hacendado. He also is weary on the Catholic Church because it was supplanted by the Spanish during colonization. According to Robe Eisenstein recognizes the positives and negatives of the religion. He sees it as an imposition from the elite minority onto the lower class but does not completely vilify it because the native people have appropriate Catholic iconography for their own purposes.”(Robe 26) “Eisenstein saw that Catholicism is harmful when controlled by the few but potentially liberatory when used by the masses.”(26) The scene that best illustrates this takes place at the end of “Maguey” when Sebastian is executed for inciting a rebellion against the landowner. Sebastian and two of his fellow peons stand on top of a hill creating an allusion to of the crucifixion, with Sebastian as Jesus. ‘Fiesta’ opens with scenes from the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe; the narrator hypothesizes that the native people’s devotion to Mary might be traced back to a cult of a much more ancient goddess that they had to adapt in order to appease the Christian colonists that insisted on “missionizing” the natives. One of the principal goals of the film is to portray a link between ancient Mexican myth and culture from pre-Columbian times to settlement. Eisenstein wants to portray a Mexico that was able to adapt- a nation that took its Aztec traditions and meshed them with Catholicism, building churches from ancient Aztec remnants and bringing bits of its own ritual customs into the Church. (Robe 30)
The film concludes with a scene of triumph in which the masks worn by the participants of the Day of the Dead festivities are taken off and revealing skeletons dressed as elite members of society but also revealing the smiling face of young children. Hart concludes that the elite were doomed and dying class, the laborers and lower class were ready for a revolution: “with the shot of a face of a smiling young boy, stands as a symbol of the future of Mexico in the post-Revolutionary era.” The poverty and mistreatment detailed in The Course of Mexican History, by Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds was going to be confronted and overcome.