Against all odds, “The Other Conquest” has turned out to be one of the most successful Mexican releases of the decade. Boffo business in opening weekend was 20% higher than that of Mel Gibson vehicle “Payback” and bigger than any other Mexican pic in history. This is a real surprise for a film that was turned down in 1998 by most major fests and got a lukewarm response from critics and audiences alike at the recent Guadalajara Muestra.
“The Other Conquest” is a far cry from the breezy entertainment preferred by the local public. Set in the years following the fall of Tenochititlan at the hands of the Spanish army in 1520, pic chronicles the travails of one Topiltzin (Damian Delgado), an Aztec scribe, bastard son of emperor Montezuma, who refuses to follow the new religion imposed by the conquerors.
At a secret ceremony of human sacrifice, Topiltzin is arrested by Capt. Quijano (Honorato Magaloni) and escapes after throwing a stone at Fray Diego (Jose Carlos Rodriguez), a compassionate friar. But his own brother turns him in , and the scribe is taken in the presence of Hernando Cortes (Inaki Aierra) and his current mistress, Tecuichpo (Elpidia Carrillo), a legitimate daughter of the dethroned emperor, who intercedes for her half-brother. Cortes spares Topiltzin from the death sentence but orders him to be publicly flogged by Quijano.
Renamed Tomas, the former scribe is admitted as a monk to the monastery run by Fray Diego. He develops a feverish fixation on an effigy of the Virgin Mary that has haunted him since he saw it replace his goddess at a botched ceremony in an underground temple. At this point, pic turns too didactic, allowing its dialogues to spell out what the title has made explicit all along. While religious syncretism sets in, the cross proves much mightier than the sword.
“The Other Conquest” is more ambitious than accomplished. First-time helmer Salvador Carrasco is unable to solve dramatic problems created by his script. Once the main character is taken to a convent and starts experiencing delirious visions, the story loses its drive. Carrasco tries to keep things moving but often resorts to tired gimmicky touches, such as using slo-mo when something significant is happening.
Pic also suffers from a schematic point of view. From the start, natives are portrayed as dignified victims while every conquistador is a scowling villain. Cortes, in particular, is shown as something of a sex-crazed despot. Subtlety is further damaged by over-the-top histrionics. In his first starring role, Delgado is allowed to indulge frequently in hysterical emoting. Rodriguez’s Fray Diego isn’t fleshed out, remaining a pious stereotype.
Production design and art direction are pic’s strongest features. Some scenes have an undeniable sense of historic authenticity. Initial images of Aztec defeat in the rain are especially memorable. Arturo de la Rosa’s lensing sometimes opts for a color-drenched scheme that recalls Italian epics of the ’60 s. A convincing atmosphere is supplied as well by Samuel Zyman and Jorge Reyes’ score, which mixes sacred music with pre-Hispanic motifs.