Any documentarian could do a straightforward history of Mexican Gen.-turned-president Plutarco Elias Calles, but when the man’s great-granddaughter, Natalia Almada, decides to examine her controversial ancestor, she personalizes it. That means rejecting biographical research in favor of weaving together charged artifacts: newsreel and old-movie footage, a taped interview with her grandmother (Calles’ daughter) and stolen glimpses of contemporary Mexican culture. Her assembled reflections, tied together through elliptical wisps of narration, offer a meditative portrait less of Calles himself than the amorphous and often contradictory nature of history and memory — an exercise better suited for fests than public exhibition.
Incubated with the help of the Sundance Institute, “El General” feels deliberately experimental, almost dreamlike in its structure. For non-Mexican auds, Almada’s observations of present-day street vendors will prove most compelling, offering glimpses of “the people” that Calles and his comrades in the Mexican Revolution aimed to liberate, still disempowered several generations on. But few will be surprised the filmmaker’s grandmother’s fond impressions of Calles don’t match the facts (including Calles’ ordered execution of clergy and the pressures he exerted over successors). Somber music and heavy subtitling make pic a tricky sit.