During my encounter with Mexico, it seemed to me to be, in all the variety of its contradictions, a sort of outward projection of all those individual lines and features which I carried and carry with me like a tangle of complexes.
–Sergei Eisenstein, Immoral Memories: An Autobiography (taken from Hershfield 1998)
In her essay “Paradise Regained,” Joanne Hershfield argues that Eisenstein’s film ¡Qué Viva México! is an ethnography, or a scientific description of a given human society, of native Mexican society (a “genre” of film-making, that at the time of Eisenstein’s work was not formally recognized or accepted as a sort of a”scientific endeavor”), and the struggle between Mexican society and European infringement as a whole. Whereas authors such as Robé focus on the particular “montage” or “radical” style of Eisenstein’s work, they seem to fail in capturing the more important essence of the film. Eisenstein’s film functions as an historical narrative of the major themes and common events leading up to the Mexican Revolution.
Hart acknowledges that Eisenstein felt an initial tug towards México for its allure as “an image of an alternative to Europe” (19). Eisenstein was able to find himself amid his “tangle of complexes” through the study of Mexico. Despite political implications or suggestions of the film, the viewer is similarly able to untangle a few knots in his or her web of self, conscience, and projection in viewing this narrative. Indeed, the fact that the film does set a political tone yet is still able to “connect” on a basic, universal level with the viewer (even non-Mexican, non-Russian viewers!) demonstrates that the film is all the more effective in drawing out this connection.
¡Qué Viva México! is effective in accomplishing this connection with its audience in part because it focuses each chapter on a certain emotion or universal concept familiar to humanity. Robé and Hart both acknowledge that the film is progressive and innovative for Hollywood film of its time, both in terms of polical radicalism and its montage technique. Despite his relative novelty, Eisenstein still manages to reach out to the viewer, offering universal concepts to which each viewer can relate.
The first chapter, the Prologue, is a brief, simple montage of living Mexican people of Mayan descent, juxtaposed with ancient pyramid renditions of their Mayan descendants. The prologue ends with a funeral procession. This chapter thematically represents sense of family lineage and death, two universals that most of us undoubtedly feel and can relate to on some sort of level.
The second chapter, Tehuantepec, tells the story of Concepción, and her dedication and labor to finally complete her gold coin necklace and marry, to fully express her happiness and potential. Happiness in love and sacrifice are two universal emotions we have all experienced.
The Fiesta, Eisenstein’s third chapter, exemplifies the struggle between Mexican and European culture: the bullfighting scene exemplifies Spanish culture, but seems to exonerate a different set of values. This conjures a sense of disconnection or conflict with outside cultures, a sentiment likely familiar to some scale in all viewers.
Progressing into the fourth chapter, The Maquey, we are faced with a deepening conflict. Sebastián obediently takes his future wife to be approved by his landowner; in the process, his wife is taken and raped. Sebastián and several comrades plan and execute a revolt out of pure disgust and anger, only to eventually be brought to a brutal, disturbing death–live burial followed by a horse stampede. This sequence clearly exemplifies the common man’s struggle against political and class authority, a conflict that we can empathize with, on one end or the other of the spectrum.
The fifth chapter remains incomplete, though we can speculate that the Soldadera would conjure a sense of pride in ourselves, as women, or in our loved female friends and relatives, as men.
Finally, the sixth chapter recounts a typical Día de los Muertos celebration. While not all viewers may empathize with the idea of celebrating death, we all relate on the basic level of death, but moreover, to the constant renewal of hope in the future. A flower wilts and dies, only to be turned into the earth to nurture a future flower’s growth. A loved one passes away, but their legacy serves as fuel to power our own personal growth and determination. Without hope, humans would simply not feel they could go on.
Eisenstein’s ¡Qué Viva México! is inspiring in that it is an early example of an ethnographical film study, and a radical, innovative one at that. (Hart, Robé). Furthermore, and perhaps just as (or more) importantly, the film succeeds in letting the audience sort out a few of his or her inner tangles, while realizing a few threads they share in common with pre-Revolution Mexican culture and Revolution motives.