Film Review: ‘Brimstone & Glory’

A poetical documentary about the small Mexican city devoted to making — and exploding — fireworks.

Esau Santiago "Santi" Sánchez Velázquez, Juan Alberto "Chincolas" Cervantes Aduna, Amauri "Güero" Sanabria Urbán, Inocenta Gomez Santos, Roberto Sánchez Olvera, Claudia Velázquez Gomez. (Spanish dialogue)

Eye candy that’s a nutritious, full meal, “Brimstone & Glory” trains its ecstatic camera on Tultepec, a town in south-central Mexico famed for its manufacture of fireworks — and an annual National Pyrotechnics Festival so giddily cinematic that the medium itself practically seems to roll over and wag tail in approval. Mixing sheer spectacle with modest but pleasing human-interest threads, Viktor Jakovleski’s first directorial feature is a poetical, entrancing documentary that should delight niche viewers across many cultural borders.

Located a bit north of Mexico City, Tultepec is a small, historic city that in the last 150 years or so came to be centered around one industry. An enormous amount of fireworks — which grew hugely popular in Mexico over the same time — originate from here. And once each spring, enthusiasts travel to the burg for a week-long orgy of competition and celebration.

More impressionistic than explanatory, “Brimstone” doesn’t provide a lot of factoids about either the production of incendiaries or the local festival, instead immersing us experientially. There’s some attempt at providing a loose narrative focal point in Santi, a boy on the cusp of adolescence who’s both attracted to and wary of the dangerous profession in which his family has long labored. Other personalities who recurrently surface include an artist who’s designed a particularly elaborate “torito” sculpture, and one of the crew who erects a giant “castle” tower that prematurely catches fire.

Such specialties each get a day to be showcased, climaxing in a “running of the bulls” wherein the braver and/or more reckless spectators cavort amid toritos discharging fireworks — and raining burning ash on everyone nearby. Some of this footage is as harrowing as it is beautiful, with the risk of serious burns, maiming, even death spelled out in a sequence inside an emergency medical van. There, no-longer-celebratory patients include a young man who may be permanently blinded in one eye after a bottle rocket sailed into his face. (Not noted in the film itself: After the production ended, Tultepec suffered an explosion in its fireworks marketplace — not its first such tragedy — that resulted in three dozen dead and nearly 60 injured.)

Yet for all the often-inebriated chaos that attends the festival, fireworks also — in fact, principally — have a religious role in Mexican life. The event itself is dedicated to 16th century Portuguese-born John of God, a significant figure in Catholic charity and monasticism who’s the designated saint of fireworks-makers.

Shot over three years, “Brimstone” is less a rigorous verite chronicle than a semi-ethnographic visual tone poem, one that occasionally abandons all pretense of storytelling to simply revel in the sheer artificial beauty at hand. Some montages are utterly hypnotic in their color and clarity, none more so than the “cosmic” shots of abstracted exploding fireworks captured at 1,500 frames per second by DP Tobias von den Borne on a high-speed camera.

There’s a suitably dreamy amorphousness to Affonso Goncalves’s editorial rhythms. They create a useful tension in contrast with a percussive score of sometimes taiko-like intensity by Dan Romer and producer Benh Zeitlin (whose own directorial exercise “Beasts of the Southern Wild” also made indelible atmospheric use of fireworks). While the original music heightens the documentary’s slightly, accessibly avant-garde air, Jakovleski wisely ends the film with a splendid vintage 1961 choral track, “Reyando el Sol” by La Rondalla de Tijuana.

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Film Review: 'Brimstone & Glory'

Reviewed at Hot Docs (World Showcase), April 28, 2017. (Also in True/False, San Francisco film festivals.) Running time: 72 MIN.

Production: (Docu) A Cinereach presentation of a Court 13 and Dept. of Motion Pictures production. (International sales: Mongrel Media, Toronto.) Producers: Kellen Quinn, Elizabeth Lodge Stepp, Dan Janvey, Affonso Goncalves, Benh Zeitlin. Executive producers: Philipp Engelhorn, Caroline Kaplan, Mike Raisler, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff.

Crew: Director: Viktor Jakovleski. Camera (color, HD), Tobias von den Borne. Editor: Affonso Goncalves. Music: Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin.

With: Esau Santiago "Santi" Sánchez Velázquez, Juan Alberto "Chincolas" Cervantes Aduna, Amauri "Güero" Sanabria Urbán, Inocenta Gomez Santos, Roberto Sánchez Olvera, Claudia Velázquez Gomez. (Spanish dialogue)

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