In a scene from Canoa: A Shameful Memory, five young people sit on the floor of an adobe house, listening to local gossip from their host, a peasant named Lucas. Outside, torrential rain lashes the small town of San Miguel Canoa, located a few kilometers from the city of Puebla, in central Mexico. The youths are employees of the University of Puebla and avid mountaineers. That evening, they are passing through Canoa on their way to climb the volcano known as La Malinche. Lucas speaks poorly of the town priest, calling him a scheming and corrupt man who manipulates his parishioners. The young men listen with interest, until they are distracted by the chiming of a bell and something that sounds like gunshots. (“Are those firecrackers?” one asks.) Lucas continues his story, recounting anecdotes about outsiders who were assassinated by order of the priest. We hear the sound of a gathering crowd and a woman’s voice yelling, “The outlaws are here!” From a shot inside the house, we cut to a scene outside the town church: a mob armed with machetes and sticks has assembled to search out the intruders. Back at Lucas’s house, the pale faces of the youths make it plain they have realized that they are the “outlaws.” Now we see the angry mob running toward the house. The scenes that follow show the fate of the five mountaineers at the hands of a crowd blinded by wrath. These harsh scenes have taken their place in Mexican cinema history.
Canoa’s ominous setting and unreliable narrators would be enough to make it a masterpiece of the suspense and horror genres. Its sense of anxiety, which reaches a peak in the scene described above, is augmented by the sinister fact that the lynchings depicted in Canoa actually took place, on September 14, 1968, just two weeks before the Tlatelolco massacre, one of the most violent and widely condemned episodes of the twentieth century in Mexico. On October 2, the Mexican Army suppressed a political demonstration by a group of students and others in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. Soldiers, disguised as civilians, infiltrated the demonstration and began shooting from the balcony of a nearby building. According to student movement accounts, the military killed over three hundred people, while the government acknowledged the deaths of only a handful.
Canoa, which frequently uses a faux-documentary format, mentions the dates on which the events it depicts in both Canoa and Puebla (where news was arriving from Mexico City) occurred. Given that those dates are so close to that of Tlatelolco—which lives in infamy in the minds of viewers familiar with Mexican history—the association of Canoa with Tlatelolco was and is inevitable. Furthermore, in scenes that show the lives of the mountaineers before they visit Canoa, we see newspaper headlines and hear radio reports that allude to the climate of paranoia and persecution that preceded the killings of October 2. For a number of months, young Mexicans had marched in the streets, denouncing the authoritarian government. These student protests, supported by the Mexican Communist Party, were set off by the army’s intervention in a soccer brawl between public school teams in July 1968, after which a number of students had been arrested. The demonstrators were in turn arrested, and both sides’ positions became more extreme. Representatives of the two largest public universities in the country demanded freedom for the detainees and the dissolution of the laws that upheld police and military interference on campuses. For its part, the state intensified its persecution of movement leaders and attempted to take university buildings by force. Every encounter resulted in bloodshed and the detention of hundreds more students.
An unprecedented coalescence of factors led to the events of 1968. The antiauthoritarian and civil rights movements happening around the world lent legitimacy and passion to the rebellion of Mexican students against their own repressive government, run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held uninterrupted power in Mexico since 1929. And the image of a nation out of control worried Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, the president of Mexico at the time, especially at this precise moment: October 12 would see the opening of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, so the country was under tremendous scrutiny from the foreign press. The president’s strategy—to reject the students’ fears, extinguish their outbursts, and disseminate fear—was supported by the media. The students were depicted as provocateurs and communists, providing the justification for the government’s final violent crackdown, on October 2, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco.
Even today, those who live in Mexico’s most impoverished rural areas barely subsist, and have minimal access to information about the events and discussions that shape the country, let alone the tools to question them. In the film, the inhabitants of Canoa, isolated and illiterate, receive “news” from their priest about evil students. Canoa provides a chronology of the events that took place in both the capital and the village before the lynchings, thus reinforcing the connection between the two. The newspaper headlines and fragments of radio dispatches make it clear that the demonization of the students in the capital is the source of the terror that the priest foments in San Miguel Canoa. Days before the arrival of the mountaineers, the priest gives an inflammatory speech about the “communists” who, with their flag that is “red like hell and black like sin,” insult both God and country.
Canoa was the first film to tackle the events of 1968—a bold move considering that only eight years had elapsed since the killings in Canoa and Tlatelolco when the film premiered in Mexico City in 1976. The PRI regime habitually “canned” films that were critical of it. Not only did Canoa avoid this fate but President Luis Echeverría placed no obstacles in the way of its being shown, although he had been secretary of the interior in 1968 and as such singled out as the author of the Tlatelolco massacre. In fact, Canoa had been produced with the support of Rodolfo Echeverría, head of the National Film Bank and the president’s brother. The president was actively encouraging a new openness in the arts—perhaps to distance himself from his predecessor. Still, the support given to Canoa seemed unusual even to its director, Felipe Cazals. The government enabled the film’s presence at festivals around the world, and the same year Canoa premiered in Mexico, it won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Canoa found both critical and box-office success, which was unprecedented in Cazals’s career. With the exception of 1970’s Emiliano Zapata—a film, produced by and starring a popular singer of the day, that Cazals has disavowed—his six previous features had barely gotten commercial distribution. After studying filmmaking in Paris and shooting some documentary shorts in Mexico, Cazals made his first feature in 1968. The Apple of Discord is the work that most anticipates the themes and tone of Canoa: in both, we see poor towns where only bad ideas take root; men who die and men who kill without understanding why; fatalistic visions and characters who espouse them. Above all, we see harbingers of the violence the characters will later suffer. In Cazals’s films, the mere suggestion of violence becomes, for the viewer, as disturbing as the scenes in which the violence actually occurs.
After The Apple of Discord, Cazals directed an existential comedy (Familiaridades, 1969); the scorned Zapata biopic; an adventure film focused on shipwrecked Spanish colonists (El jardín de la tía Isabel, 1971); a film about the nineteenth-century Mexican Civil War (Aquellos años, 1973); and a documentary about a native group dispossessed of their land (Los que viven donde el viento sopla suave, 1974). For reasons that include out-of-control budgets, overliterary screenplays, and exceedingly rigid views of Mexican history, the director’s true voice is not quite perceptible in any of these films. On the other hand, they served as his laboratory, where he was able to experiment with violating the rules of “correct” cinema. These transgressions laid the foundation for Canoa, a film that juxtaposes styles in order to provoke a loss of control and sense of estrangement in its audience.
Cazals is a lifelong cinephile, and one can see that in his films. Even before beginning his studies at Paris’s Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, he had aligned himself with the French New Wave—its films, its theory, and its rejection of the cinéma du papa. Zapata and Aquellos años, his historical films before Canoa, still contain elements of the Mexican traditional cinema he sought to reject—the folklorization of heroes and popular battles, for example, and the excessive formality in the characterization of venerated political figures. But the manner in which Canoa reenacts past events is completely alien to those models.
Two of the friendships with other young film buffs that Cazals had formed during his time spent in Mexico City cinemas and cafés were fortuitous for the production of Canoa. Film critic Tomás Pérez Turrent was at work on a screenplay (his first) about the incident, and when the slated director left the project, Cazals signed on. Álex Phillips Jr. had shot Zapata, and Cazals considered him one of his dearest friends, but Canoa was assigned to another cinematographer. Two days before shooting began, that cinematographer left the project, and Cazals asked Phillips to take on the job, unsure whether he would agree. Without a word in response, Phillips showed up to the set, and the rest is history: Canoa is the result of an ideal three-way collaboration. It could not have been achieved without Phillips’s chiaroscuro camera work or the bold structure of Pérez Turrent’s script.
From the film’s very first sequence, the denouement is revealed. We begin in a newsroom, where two journalists receive the report that a few youths have died at the hands of an angry mob. Shortly thereafter, we see the broken corpses on the ground. In the era of spoiler alerts, this opening would be tantamount to narrative suicide. Few other films illustrate as well as Canoa Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense: the expectation created when a character does not know he is in danger but the viewer does. Once the audience learns the destiny of these young university employees, each scene that shows them preparing for their trip generates unbearable anxiety.
Canoa distances itself from the tragedy it depicts through its use of faux-documentary techniques, but the people telling the story are unreliable. Everything about the presentation of facts is strange and disconcerting. The narration’s description of the town mimics travel writing of the period, but instead of picturesque commentary, it presents facts and figures on the hunger, alcoholism, and poverty that plague the region. The sense of estrangement increases with the appearance of a local man with an evasive glance and a derisive tone. First an interview subject, he becomes a sort of tour guide to the underbelly of the town. He breaks the rules of space and time when he appears in the lynching scenes, looking directly at the viewer. He will not be the only one in the film to breach the fourth wall. When one of the survivors is traveling in an ambulance after the assaults, he looks at the camera and says, “Now I really am going back home.” It is an unexpected address that gives you goose bumps.
Canoa opened in ten Mexican cinemas, in some of which it ran for over a year. After that, it was shown occasionally on television but not again on the big screen until 1998, in a single showing before an expectant audience at the Festival Internacional de Cine in Guadalajara. Thus, the bulk of the writing about the film was generated when it was first released. The memory of Tlatelolco was still fresh then, and the film read as a generational manifesto. Either it was interpreted as supporting the student movement (leaving aside the fact that the lynched youths were not, in fact, strikers, or even students) or Cazals was reproached for showing the army coming in to contain the violence—as though the staging of a military parade elsewhere in the film were not sufficient to convey the filmmaker’s disdain for that institution.
Moving beyond these blind spots, sociopolitical readings of Canoa are insufficient to explain its power. Those of us born in the years surrounding 1968 were too young to truly understand the film’s ideological implications when we first saw it. This did not prevent us from intuiting its terror or being marked by its disturbing story. It is possible that certain references or subtexts were lost, but this presented an advantage. Canoa appealed to our feelings, which had not yet been refined—fear, first and foremost, and most primitive and powerful of all. For many of us, Canoa was, above all else, an impressive horror movie. Later generations once again became receptive to its political message, and for today’s Mexican viewers, Canoa is painful and relevant. The current state of violence and the government’s inability to provide security from it have generated in Mexican citizens a constant sense of vulnerability, making it quite natural for them to identify with the unfortunate protagonists of the film. Furthermore, the increased “disappearances” of people perceived as threats by the government are the kinds of acts of repression that will always have Tlatelolco as their touchstone. Even so, the central theme of Canoa is not the assignment of blame. That would require presenting the events as a closed case. In fact, something like the opposite is suggested: that evil is intangible, and often embodied by the very people who claim to defend God and country.
Certain definitions of the horror genre require the presence of supernatural elements. While Canoa lacks these, its villagers act as though they are possessed. Their possession may not be demonic, but it is religious, which in this case amounts to the same thing. The violence with which they attack the visitors has irrational origins—for all intents and purposes, supernatural ones. The lynchings are diabolical acts committed in the name of the divine, but depending on your viewpoint, they look like a satanic ritual. The priest has attributes of the devil but the investiture of God. Seen a different way, Canoa is a film of prophecy, another variant of the religious horror movie. If the story were told solely from the point of view of the townspeople, it would show the arrival of five Antichrists, as the priest pronounces them. Although as viewers we do not participate in the priest’s religious fantasies, we see that the terror they induce is real.
Ultimately, Canoa is a horror movie in the way it concludes—or in the way it does not conclude. The horror film generally proposes as its outcome a seeming return to normalcy. In one way or another, the viewer is made aware that evil—in whatever form it has taken—has not been eradicated. The more the characters celebrate the return to normalcy, the more it is suggested that the demons have infiltrated daily life. In the final sequences of Canoa, we see the inhabitants of the town celebrating the feast of their saint, as though nothing has happened. Since the film has presented the murders in flashback, this also recalls the first sequences, in which friends and family of the dead marched with the coffins on September 16, two days after the lynchings. They march in the opposite direction from the army, who are part of the “official” parade. The procession of the townspeople on their feast day and the military parade are mirror images, meant to augur the continuation of a history steeped in paranoia and blood.
Trying to trace Canoa’s legacy in later films that portray the coarse reality of Mexican life would reduce Cazals’s filmography to typical social realism, overlooking his fatalistic reflections on the specific violence that flares up in Mexico. In fact, perhaps the most interesting way in which Canoa has infiltrated today’s Mexican cinema is subtler: via the sensibility of one of its key directors, who belongs to the generation that first experienced Canoa as both pure horror and the most powerful Mexican film it had ever seen. Alfonso Cuarón saw it at age fourteen and was shaken by it. He counts it as one of his great influences and even employed its distinctive voice-over technique in his 2001 film Y tu mamá también, one of the works that ushered in a new era of Mexican cinema. The voice-over is used in Canoa to relay the deficiencies and misery of the town. Y tu mamá también uses voice-over to narrate the travels of two adolescents through a Mexico marred by inequality. Underneath its lighthearted tone, Cuarón’s film paints a bitter portrait of classism. It is a deterministic fable in which the fate of the characters depends not on their will but on social structures, and its power is rooted in the subtext created by the voice-over. The link between Cuarón and Cazals illustrates the best kind of cinematic legacy: that which is almost invisible to the eye of the viewer.
Fernanda Solórzano is the chief film critic for Letras libres. She has also written for many Mexican print outlets, as well as Cahiers du cinéma, Caimán cuadernos de cine, and Sight & Sound, among other foreign publications. She is currently working on a dictionary of Mexican film production.
Translated from the Spanish by Deborah Wassertzug.