Every week Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Viva Zapata! (1952)
There is one single word that has been so abused in these last decades, during the great communications and media outbreak, that it has totally lost its meaning: revolution. Flashback more than a few decades ago, when a certain revolution took place in Mexico. Emiliano Zapata was an important figure in it, so when Elia Kazan and John Steinbeck attempted to create a critical work for the delicate matters surrounding organized massive struggle, they chose his story as the center of their symbolism. The outcome was Viva Zapata! with its moments of truth and those of tasteless manipulation toward preconceived notions.
Steinbeck and Kazan’s Zapata (apparently they took a few liberties with the character) is a prototypical leader for the poor masses. A man of their kind but with a bit of rich blood, illiterate but smart, crude but handsome, tough but caring, desirable but a monogamist and, above all, just and proud. From the very beginning, he stands up to president Porfirio Diaz when he calmly tells the truth right to his face and gets a red circle around his name for it. At that point he becomes the potential messiah, chosen by none other than his most obvious enemy.
Marlon Brando’s Zapata is young, sturdy and though rough as a thinker, he seems to be constantly aware of his fate as a revolutionary. His instincts draw him to it while his sensible choices flirt with the conventional. His moment of weakness comes when he is asked to lead the forces of the south to battle. He declares that, “he can’t be the conscience of the world.” On the first chance he gets he clashes with the authorities, becomes a prisoner and gets saved by the people in a beautiful sequence that symbolizes his christening as their leader. His previous decision gets overturned by his nature. Zapata’s only strong tie to the common life is his love for a certain woman, Josefa (Jean Peters). He has to make a good enough name for himself to win her father’s appreciation but he’s too impulsive. Still, his love for her is always equal to the love he has for his people.
Brando’s acting is too obvious in making Zapata larger than any average Mexican around but then, that’s probably what a savior should look like. What he expresses quite good though, is the combination of his hero’s raw manners with his kind heart, the crude cliche that transforms the writers’ main character from a human being to an identifiable prototype. On his opposite there is his equally rough brother Euphemio, played with burning intensity by the excellent Anthony Quinn, a character that’s a lot more real, who succumbs to his human weaknesses – making Emiliano look even better by contrast.
Between those two stands a fictional character, Fernando Aguirre, who comes to life in an extremely creepy way by Joseph Wiseman. Aguirre is the symbol for logic, “his only friend,” as he declares. Not only is he aware that victory is momentary, a struggle is essentially never-ending and utopia is a delusion but he lives by these perceptions, predicting the next winner with frightening accuracy, taking their side at the right moment. Like the shadow of a universal truth that can’t be beat he stands behind every new turn in the revolutionary process. Another fictional character is Pablo (Lou Gilbert), Zapata’s literate sidekick who symbolizes the ethics of the revolution. “Can a good thing come from a bad act? Can peace come from so much killing?” he asks Zapata just before his friend executes him in the holy name of discipline.
The clash of those four elements is the most interesting and well-constructed part of the film amidst a pastiche of pompous symbolisms like the white horse standing for Zapata’s living spirit in the end. Mixing non-fictional characters like Emiliano and Euphemio Zapata with fictional ones to present a train of critical thought on a complex subject like “the revolution” is an excellent idea, as long as everybody knows they’re not watching the history channel. The politics of both creators aside, their biggest mistake while blowing this idea was the simplistic “triggerhappy” approach which underestimates the viewers’ ability to watch and judge by themselves. While revolution thrives on loud slogans and vivid battle cries, its criticism can’t rely on those tools because it goes for people’s minds rather than their hearts. It should be clear instead of simple, thought provoking instead of didactic and, most importantly, it should work for the revolution instead of against it if it wants to be trusted.
As for the rest, the script fast forwards through time a lot without any explanations while giving its other non-fictional characters an unfair treatment, especially Harold Gordon’s Fransisco Madero, who comes out as a naive fool more than a beaten idealist in an unfitting comical way. Direction and photography work in providing certain moments with extra emotional weight while the action sequences are perfectly made.
The movie’s old ass trailer concludes with the hilarious, selfloving hurrahs “Viva Elia Kazan!” and “Viva John Steinbeck!” Unfortunately Viva Zapata!, though certainly noteworthy, is more about them than their beloved historical figure.