Herod’s Law” has lately been at the center of a huge political scandal in Mexican cinema. Because of its corrosive take on Mexico’s ruling party, officials tried to cancel its special screening at the Acapulco French film fest and in early December rushed the film into unauthorized limited release (without benefit of distribution, and using bootleg prints), which prompted a lawsuit by producer-director Luis Estrada. Subsequently, pic was withdrawn from theaters and the top brass of the Mexican Film Institute (Imcine) resigned. Provocative, well-shot and vastly entertaining in its malice, “Herod’s Law” will surely do boffo business locally if and when it is commercially released. Political buzz has also earned it international attention, which will no doubt get a boost from upcoming screenings at the Sundance Film Festival.
It’s easy to see why “Herod’s Law” has ruffled more than a few government feathers; although the story is set in the late ’40s, the story invites contempo readings. Yarn centers on the dubious ascent of Vargas (Damian Alcazar), a petty party member who’s appointed mayor of San Pedro de los Saguaros, a miserable small village, after the previous one is decapitated by the townspeople for his crimes. At first, Vargas tries earnestly to do the job by the book and bring progress to the boondocks. But soon enough a visit to sly politician Lopez (Pedro Armendariz) reveals a different mission: to profit personally from the situation while applying the law by force of the gun.
Soon Vargas turns into a power-mad tyrant, more than willing to commit acts of theft, extortion and murder. Word of his excesses soon reaches his bosses, who try to rein him in. Although retribution in the form of another lynch mob seems to be in order, Estrada and his co-writers have reserved a final, subversive twist that has been the most probable cause of uproar among authorities.
Estrada doesn’t pull any punches in portraying the Partido Revolucionario Institucional as a breeding ground for corrupt politicians. This is the first time a Mexican feature has addressed the PRI by name — in itself a milestone. Though heavy-handed, the satire is effective; Estrada goes for the kill, striking in all directions so that the rightist party, the Catholic Church and Yank intervention also get their share of knocks.
Helmer skillfully moves the action at a brisk pace, convincing viewers that the story’s outlandish situations are not only probable but inevitable. Estrada has also coached top-notch performances from his actors. Lead turn by Alcazar is an essay on sleaziness, while secondary characters provide juicy roles for a choice group of veterans.
Brit helmer Alex Cox has a lark portraying a seedy gringo, and Armendariz oozes cynical power. But former sexpot Isela Vega all but steals the show as a foul-mouthed madam. (U.S. audiences will remember her as the love interest in Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.”)
Tech credits are pro in every department. Lensing by Norman Christianson strives for a sense of period through monochromatic tones, and art direction adds a feeling of decay. Soundtrack benefits from the sarcastic use of composer Santiago Ojeda’s tasty mambos.