In 1897, some 10 years before the Mexican Revolution, President Porfirio Diaz was attacked by a drunken law clerk armed with only a stone. Veteran helmer Jorge Fons’ opulent political costumer, based on Alvaro Uribe’s ingenious novel, proposes a complex right-wing conspiracy behind the pathetic assassination attempt. With a panoramic canvas that stretches from working-class taverns to upper-class cafes, criss-crossing political, personal and sexual betrayals, pic deploys a budget equal to its ambition. But despite excellent thesping and remarkably clear exposition, pic never really erupts, although its cogent political message will doubtless resonate beyond national borders.
Little is known about the actual incident, mainly because the would-be assassin, Arnulfo Arroyo, was himself killed under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter. “The Attempt” imagines Arroyo (Jose Maria Yazpik) as a cheerfully outspoken, habitually drunken critic of Diaz’s dictatorship, goaded into the act by a shadowy cabal of right-wing officials who want to fake a terrorist attack to further more openly repressive legislation.
Events are filtered through the vantage point of writer/government functionary Frederico (Daniel Giminez Cacho), who is compiling notes on the case for an eventual novel. But having been friends with both Arroyo and the chief of police (Julio Bracho) who manipulated the intrigue to his own ends, Frederico winds up trying to distance himself from the whole affair, leaving the writing of history in the hands of the government-collusive press.
Fons mirrors the assassination plot in a three-way sexual intrigue that sees the police chief’s delectable fiancee, Cordelia (Irene Azuela, as a remarkably sympathetic serial sexpot), sharing her favors with anarchistic Arroyo and centrist Frederico, thus covering the political spectrum.
Perhaps aware of the pic’s lack of dynamism, the filmmakers wisely offset the narrative with blunt distancing devices: Periodically, the unfolding events are broadly caricatured by two buffoonish bar performers, whose inept posturings are greeted with roaring approval by sombrero-wearing spectators who look suspiciously like Pancho Villa’s future followers.
Stylistically, Fons contrasts these simply lensed vaudevillian shenanigans with sinuous tracking shots that characterize the machinations of the ruling class. Pic’s opening shot segues from the frowsy curtains of the barroom stage to a more elegant curtain, beyond which lies an elaborate set through which lenser Guillermo Granillo’s camera wanders, winding its way through various strata of urban society.
Unfortunately, this intricate, everything-in-its place historical reconstruction still feels extremely academic; five minutes of Sergio Leone’s “Duck You Sucker” percolates with more vital political contradictions than all of Fons’ painstaking setups.