Having retired in 1992, seasoned director Felipe Cazals attempts a comeback with a historical drama about the last days of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Mexican president who lost half of his country’s territory in an 1847 war with the United States. “His Most Serene Highness” is essentially a gloomy chamber piece that works as an apt metaphor for the changing face of politics. As its specialized content and talky nature will prove too daunting for wide audiences, a limited release in arthouses and a tour of top Latin Americans fests look like its best bets.
In 1876, a defeated Santa Anna (Alejandro Parodi), although weak and in pain from an amputated leg, still nurses fantasies of regaining his former glory. As he receives visitors, former political allies and persons with various agendas, he continues to act like a tyrant within the walls of his rundown palace.
Meanwhile, his devoted wife, Dolores (Ana Bertha Espin), hires street beggars to act as supporters of her husband.
Cazals pursues his interest in Mexico’s past as means to understanding its present. The figure of Santa Anna, whose power is decaying and who has lost contact with reality and faces rejection by the people, is relevant today in that the party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years has lost its political influence.
While theatrical in concept and divided into three acts, “His Most Serene Highness” avoids a sense of staginess, thanks to Cazals’ ability to give a cinematic feel to a drama set within closed spaces. Angel Goded’s precise camera work heightens the tension between the characters.
Sterling performances rep a major asset. Vet actor Parodi captures the inner turmoil of a man who sees himself as a brave fighting cock — a recurrent motif throughout the film. The underrated Espin delivers an outstanding turn as the wife. Confirming his new standing as a solid character actor, Pedro Armendariz creates a poignant study of a ragged colonel, reduced to reminiscing about the good old times with Santa Anna in exchange for a few coins.
Despite a modest budget, pic boasts a canny sense of period through the good use of a single location and authentic-looking props and costumes. The clever dialogue — written by Cazals himself — conveys the feeling this was the way people spoke in 19th-century Mexico.
The brief biographical data about Santa Anna given at the end should be moved to the beginning so viewers will have a better comprehension of subject matter.