By Steve Macfarlane
When Mexican director Felipe Cazals died this past October at the age of 84, domestic and international press alike cited the political importance of his films, while Guillermo del Toro called Cazals an “exemplary and noble teacher” on Twitter. But if the filmmaker’s stature within his home country is ironclad today, his body of work remains, for the most part, a question with no easy solution. Cazals died with over 30 feature credits to his name, exactly one of which has been restored and made internationally available: the 1976 Canoa: Memoria de un hecho vergonzoso (“Memory of a shameful act,” recast in English as “A Shameful Memory”). Currently, Canoa is one of only 12 movies from Mexico distributed by the Criterion Collection (eleven are tagged as such on the label’s website, but surely Cuarón’s Roma  makes it an even dozen)—a discouraging number given the country’s size, and its proximity to and historical relationship with the United States. Then again, even absent Mexican cinema’s general lack of recognition in North America, Cazals was clearly not interested in making easy entertainment or export-ready spectacle.
Apart from the merits of his films themselves, Cazals’ career casts into relief a half-century of profound change within his country’s movie business. Cazals belonged to a generation that grew up in the shadow of Mexico’s golden era of studio filmmaking from the 1930s to the mid-’50s, an influence that led him, when he began his own cinematic career in the 1960s, to refuse to make those films known as churros—the post-Cantinflas comedies, El Santo wrestling flicks, and assorted knock-offs of and cash-ins on Hollywood movies that became points of origin for a million racist jokes about Mexico as a place where American cultural product is crudely xeroxed into Spanish and forgotten upon delivery. (The derogatory moniker for these pictures derives as much from the Mexican slang term for weed of questionable quality as it does to the famous cinnamon-laced dessert.)
Speaking to me in an interview for Filmmaker this past spring, Cazals said that to be a Mexican filmmaker in the studio years was, in essence, to be a flunky with no creative autonomy, citing only the expatriate Buñuel, the noir master Roberto Gavaldón, and actor-director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández (an acolyte of Eisenstein during his years south of the border) as exceptions. If Cazals was an auteur, then, it was not because he smuggled formal tics or contraband political ideas into otherwise mainstream movies, but rather because he unerringly kept his cinematic gaze fixed on what he called “the real Mexico.” “It was never about being political for its own sake,” he told me in our interview. “My aim was to always have a critical lens on any film I made. I wanted to use those tools to say what I was thinking and seeing.”
Although his official Mexican biographies claimed that he was a native of Mexico City, Cazals was actually born in 1937 in Guéthary, a commune in the Basque-dominant province of Labourd in southwestern France that served as a haven for half a million Spanish refugees at the height of the country’s civil war, including Cazals’ family. His parents ultimately restarted their lives in the Mexican capital, where his father sold lingerie. After incomplete training at France’s Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC), Cazals returned to Mexico in the mid-’60s and began his filmmaking career directing short documentaries for television; his first film to be broadcast was a verité dispatch from the studio of the English-born Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who took up residence in Mexico in the 1940s and became part of the country’s circle of WWII-era exiles and refugees such as Victor Serge.
Cazals’ early features La manzana de la discordia (The Apple of Discord, 1968), about a trio of petty criminals roaming the countryside, and Familiaridades (Familiarities, 1969), which chronicles the afternoon of a listless housewife who is visited in her apartment by alternatingly bumbling and menacing door-to-door salesmen, betray a yearning to criticize the tried-and-trues of postwar Mexican society—the first by taking the form of a revisionist anti-Western, the second by sounding a slow clown horn for the soul-sickness of bourgeois Mexico City life. Improvised by Cazals and his five-person cast, and made under the palpable influence of the French New Wave (as well as the drawing-room satires of Buñuel, whose son Juan Luis is one of the film’s stars), Familiaridades is also notable as one of a handful of films produced by the short-lived Cine Independiente de México, which Cazals founded in partnership with Arturo Ripstein (who made La hora de los niños [The Children’s Hour] under the company banner the same year).
Cazals’ next project was about as far at the other end of the spectrum from Familiaridades as was possible. Emiliano Zapata, a 70mm biopic starring, written and produced by Mexican megastar Antonio Aguilar (in a rare non-singing role), was a sweeping, largely shot-on-location biopic of the eponymous revolutionary, and was Mexico’s biggest production up to that date. Though Cazals was able to balance the de rigueur heroics with a surprisingly tactile depiction of the unending drudgery of insurgent war, he described the experience of making the film as one that was both embittering and humbling. In 2019, he told Mexican magazine Proceso that his intention in signing on to Emiliano Zapata was to test his skills in managing a bigger crew; while effectively disowning the final product, he also claimed that the film taught him “not to spit on my salary as a film director, just as dozens of Mexican film directors who preceded me had to do to survive.”
Zapata was also Cazals’ first time working with cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr., son of the same-named Canadian cinematographer who had found a new career bringing Hollywood style to Mexican studios after being fired by Samuel Goldwyn in the 1930s. Cazals credits Phillips, who would become his regular DP, with helping give him the confidence to let go of his negative experience on Zapata and move forward into what would become the most fruitful era of his career. This resurgence reached its zenith in 1976 with no less than three films, which, thanks to the unsparing, even stomach-churning light they shine on the suppressed histories—or, indeed, shameful memories—of Cazals’ homeland, came to be collectively known as the director’s “trilogia de violencia” (a nickname which surely requires no translation).
Still Cazals’ best-known work, the aforementioned Canoa is a radical and gruesome horror film-as-docudrama about the lynching of four accused communists (in reality, naive university employees) in a rural village outside the city of Puebla, at the base of the Malinche volcano—a real-life story that evokes, in microcosm, the infamous 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, in which hundreds of students and protesters were murdered by federal troops under the orders of then-president Diaz Ordaz. Perhaps improbably, given the film’s unmistakable allegorizing (or synecdochizing) of that atrocity, Canoa was financed in partnership with the Mexican government (at that point presided over by the brother of Ordaz’s successor) as part of an initiative whereby directors could forfeit a portion of their salaries in exchange for more creative control.
Clearly, Cazals flourished under (and took eager advantage of) this system, given his extraordinary productivity within a single year. Released only a few months after Canoa, El apando (The Heist) is an absurdist, almost Beckettian tragedy about detainees in Mexico’s most infamous prison who attempt to smuggle marijuana inside with the help of a prisoner’s unassuming mother. (The film was adapted from a novel by José Revueltas—regular screenwriter for Roberto Gavaldón, and one of Mexico’s most important leftist thinkers—who wrote it while he himself was interned in the same prison for “authoring” the 1968 student movement.) The third film in Cazals’ trilogy, Los poquianchis—whose full title translates, approximately, as Los poquianchis: Of the details and other events in public knowledge that happened to the sisters of sad memory, and who were thus baptized in slander—is a grotesque docudrama re-enactment of the case of the country’s most famous sex-trafficking ring, which expands into an indictment of the state and the press.
Following another period piece, La guera Rodríguez (1978), Cazals directed El año de la peste (Year of the Plague, 1979), a searing, pitiless, not-quite-science-fictional modernization of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year from a concept suggested by Gabriel García Márquez. A work of scalding indignation, El año de la peste’s depiction of governmental incompetence and evasion of responsibility in the face of a pestilence anticipates COVID-19 in ways that need no belabouring here. (A thousand thinkpieces, and probably also some money, are just sitting there waiting for whichever small-batch repertory distributor ponies up for a proper restoration of El año de la peste and gives it a slick “topical” polish.) Yet the film’s drama stems not only from identifying those who abet the plague, but also from the existential dread of watching a catastrophe unfold in slow motion. Cazals has no master narrative to put forward: his Mexico is a place with multiple histories, a mystery without a solution, where knowing who to blame ultimately makes no difference.
Viewed in hindsight, Cazals’ filmography traces a curious migration on the part of its maker: from aspiring auteur, to company man, to company-man auteur who, after the national film industry was decimated in the 1980s by neoliberal-inspired budget cuts under Banco Cinematografico president Maria Lourdes Portillo (known as “La Macartita” for her McCarthyite purges), receded into relative obscurity as a maker of suspense thrillers and borderline-exploitation videofilmes. However, in the last phase of his filmmaking, he had something of a career resurgence with three historical biopics—Su alteza serenísima (His Most Serene Highness, 2001), which chronicles the last days of 19th-century dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna; Chicogrande (2010), about the squadron of American mercenaries sent to kill Pancho Villa in 1916; and Ciudadano Buelna (2013), about Rafael Buelna Tenorio, a law student murdered in 1924 for his support of the uprising against Porfirio Diaz—which, despite their limitations in terms of production value, worthily continued Cazals’ project of detailing the intricacies of history and refusing to shy away from the brutal reality of political violence. (Critic and scholar José Antonio Valdés Peña described Cazals as “a [filmmaker] who took violence to the extreme, but for you to feel it in the pores of your skin: that rough, terrible and atrocious violence that is part of our Mexican society.” )
Neither outright propaganda nor sensationalist exploitation cinema, Cazals’ work reveals him as, above all, an educator (this was literally true as well, as he taught at Mexico City’s Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica until the end of his life). And the fact that so many of the lessons he had to teach were harsh ones is an intrinsic part of his artistry. As Canoa suggests, bearing witness is just the first step in a far longer process whose conclusion has no guarantees.