Morelia: Bernardo Arellano Discusses Impulso Morelia’s ‘Serpent’s Paradise’

Casting non-pro actors who believe in miracles, the desert-trekking Judaeo-Christian allegory opened the Morelia’s works in progress section, then took home silverware

Morelia: Bernardo Arellano's 'Serpent's Paradise' Shines
Bernardo Arellano

MORELIA, Mexico — Impulso Morelia is a works in progress forum where nearly finished films are screened for an industry audience which are given the opportunity to ask questions and offer suggestions on ways to polish the film’s final cut.

The first picture screened at this year’s Impulso was Bernardo Arellano’s “Serpent’s Paradise.” The film then capped off the week by taking home the Estudios Churubusco Azteca Award, which will provides support of 200,000 Mexican pesos ($10,500) in post-production and THX sound services.

Arellano is no stranger to festival success. In 2011 “Between Night and Day,” was in competition at San Sebastián’s Horizontes Latinos and the Warsaw and Guadalajara fests, and in 2014 his second feature “The Beginning of Time” took home best Latin American picture at Malaga, won at Beijing.

“Serpent’s Paradise” came to the Mexican festival this year looking to snag an international sales agent and festival premiere.

The film is co-produced by Biznaga Films, La Maroma Producciones and La Provincia Cine in Mexico, and BiBi Film in Italy. The Mexican-Italian partnership makes additional sense as Arellano has stated that he wants the music for the film to have an Ennio Morricone feel, while many of the film’s visuals are reminiscent of the Spaghetti-Western genre.

“Serpent’s Paradise” follows the movements of a mysterious man who is found as the only survivor at the scene of a car accident. Once he has sufficiently recovered, the stranger begins to wander the desert and the local ejidos – small communal lands – performing Christ-like miracles. The stranger starts to be recognized as a prophet, which doesn’t sit well with the local clergy. Arellano discussed his latest feature with Variety.

Your film focuses on people who are marginalized by a political system that tends to ignore them. How important was it for you to represent them accurately?

In a context of exclusion, the characters that inhabit the margins represent the vulnerable part of the human being. It’s a part that is easily identified, and mysteriously awakens in others the intolerance that seeks to attack someone who displays a different posture. For me, films have that quality, similar to fables, where we find a constant criticism of human nature, narrated through a moral story.

What kind of research was required before making the film?

I reviewed films with spiritual elements that interested me; “Diary of a Rural Priest” by Robert Bresson, Tarkovsky’sAndrei Rublev,” and “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” by Passolini. Also, the Mexican artist Juan Rulfo served as reference for the rural portrait. Both in his black and white photography and his narrative potential in literature like “The Flame Plain.” The Western is also a genre that I enjoy a lot, so I decided to recreate that atmosphere with the landscapes and cinematographic style.

Watching this film, one can’t help but think of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. What other stories, religious or otherwise, did you draw on for inspiration?

I was reading about the lives of several mystics and occultists like John Milton, Parecelsus, Giordano Bruno and William Blake who have served as a strong influence on the idea of the prophet. These were characters who came to point out injustice, to end ignorance and to claim the hidden powers of nature.

The church is not at all welcoming to the ‘prophet’ in the film, in fact they seem threatened by him. Is there a larger statement being made here about the state of institutionalized religion?

I am interested in human spirituality but I believe that religions only use this need of faith to become an institution of social control than eventually emancipate the human will. Catholicism has a sense that is valuable in its foundations as well as Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The problem comes in institutionalizing it. In that sense, the film is not only a criticism of Catholicism but of the idea of having spiritual institutions, which would be supposed mediators between the concept of God and men.

You made this film with non-pro actors. Were they from the ejidos? How did you cast them?

All the actors came from the desert of Potosi, a poor and marginal zone that I find a mystical area. The question that was asked to those who went to casting was: “Do you believe in miracles?” Those who did went on to the next test which consisted of a representation of a religious scene.

There are some quite humorous parts to the film. Can you talk about the decision to add levity to a film that is so serious in many other aspects?

When I started working on the directing style, I thought that having humor would give an interesting twist to the film, because it would take some solemnity from the character of the prophet and give us the possibility of having a combination of tragedy and comedy. Both represent the ejido very well, every day there is a discussion about life and death, dust and hope.