The final days of a band of 1930s Christian rebels in the central Mexican wilderness are depicted with majestic stoicism in Matias Meyer’s elegant ode to independence, “The Last Christeros.” Although the project is the product of considerable research as well as an adaptation of Antonio Estrada’s acclaimed novel “Rescoldo, the Last Christeros,” the film is free of factoidal narrative, and has been de-dramatized to convey the experience of being a guerrilla fighter. This will seriously limit commercial potential, though fests should be in passionate demand.
Perhaps perversely to some, the action here largely consists of what happens between the battles. It’s an artistic choice that emphasizes the deeper spiritual core of these guerrilla fighters (their journey through the mountainous semi-desert recalling that of biblical figures like the Three Kings), and very much of a piece with the existential quests that define Meyer’s two previous films, “Wadley” and “The Cramp.”
A brief audio segment provides the context for the Christeros’ war with the Mexican government: The voice on the 1969 recording belongs to actual Christeros guerrilla Francisco Campos, who describes the closing of Catholic churches across Mexico by President Plutarcho Elias Calles as part of a go-for-broke political war between the government and the archdiocese establishment in Mexico. The Christeros formed an armed guerrilla force in response to Calles’ anti-clerical policies — less a Christian military action and more a popular campesino revolt.
The film proper launches with an extended sequence of the Christeros band (Jesus Moises Rodriguez, Antonio Garcia, Salvador Ferreiro, Abel Lozano) led by Col. Florencio Estrada (Alejandro Limon) eluding the firepower of a pursuing platoon of Federales, who are invariably seen at a distance from the p.o.v. of Estrada and his men. This perspective reinforces Meyer’s approach, which is to invest the viewer in the sometimes arduous, day-to-day experiences of these men, without propagandizing for their religious sentiments — a nuance that will inevitably stir some discussion when pic plays in Latin America and Catholic countries.
Estrada’s unit is unafraid to kill potential enemies on sight, as they do in one starkly staged and briefly violent scene in which they occupy a house. A strategic miscalculation has hobbled the unit, and Estrada determines that his bedraggled group must meet with Christeros commanders in order to restock ammo and supplies.
Meyer is most interested in the physical movement of the rebels from one hideout to another and the periods of calm between gunfire. There’s an unmistakable sense of the absurd in the unit’s movements; while the coverage of their desert treks captures a beautiful fusion of figures, landscapes and sky (backed by Galo Duran’s spare, expressive brass-based score), there’s no particular progress toward a goal. Instead, there’s a growing realization that they’re wandering in circles as much as eluding the government troops.
When the Christeros are at rest, Meyer’s images (lensed expertly in 35mm by Gerardo Barroso) quote Diego Rivera’s paintings of the revolutionary era without being obvious about it, while the soundtrack is filled with various corridos the men sing about missing loved ones and their glorious cause. The men are finally able to enjoy a respite with their families, who have been hounded out of their villages by the Federales; this scene is suffused with a melancholia unlike anything in Meyer’s previous work, and he handles it with great sensitivity.
Non-pro cast keeps things simple and direct, their drawn and bearded faces evoking old photographs. Overall tech package marks a step forward from the no-budget scale of Meyer’s previous films.