Home Video Hovel: Canoa: A Shameful Memory, by David Bax
Felipe Cazals’ 1975 Canoa: A Shameful Memory, available now on Blu-ray from Criterion, is a docudrama about a shocking true incident in what was then Mexico’s recent past. Like in the films of Costa-Gavras, Cazals employs a bracing straightforwardness that ratchets up momentum while only mildly obfuscating just how angry a movie Canoa really is.
In 1968, five young men from the city of Puebla headed into the countryside to spend the weekend hiking. When a storm stranded them in the small town of San Miguel Canoa, they found themselves victims of frenzied locals who, believing the men to be communist activists, killed four of them. Leftist protests had erupted all over the world in 1968; in fact, shortly before the events depicted in Canoa, communists had been gunned down by police in Mexico City. The people of San Miguel Canoa, Cazals suggests, were additionally riled up by the local priest, who appealed to their devout Catholicism not just to line his pockets but also to bewilder them with fears that communists would kill him and desecrate the church. Cazals starts his story at the end, with a journalist reporting on the murders, and then jumps back to the beginning, cutting back and forth between the town and the young men until they arrive in Canoa by the film’s halfway point. Then he methodically ratchets up the tension for most of the second hour.
In an early section, Cazals adopts an unembellished documentary approach, as a narrator introduces us to San Miguel Canoa over shots of its rundown buildings and dusty farms. This is an incredibly poor and cloistered community, in which a majority of the inhabitants speak indigenous languages and no Spanish. When we start to meet these men and women, Cazals even has the actors directly address the camera with information and backstory, as if they are being interviewed. But don’t mistake this documentary effect for journalism. Cazals is in no way attempting to be fair and balanced. His story has a clear villain in the priest, a man who issues receipts for tithes and refused to perform weddings, funerals, christenings or last rites to those who can’t produce proof of payment. He’s more a cult leader than a man of the cloth, going so far as to install a sound system in the center of town that his acolytes use to shame those who refuse to fall in line. Whether Cazals intends to condemn religion itself or merely the way it can be used and distorted to brainwash and justify will depend on if you see a difference between the two.
As I said, Canoa: A Shameful Memory is an angry film. In fact, it’s downright furious. Its chief strength lies in Cazals’ ability to maintain a measured pace despite his ire. That results in a buildup that is sickeningly tense, outmatched only by a climax more hellish than you’d even feared. Canoa is an anguished scream that echoes over forty years.
Criterion’s 4K transfer, overseen by Cazals himself, comes from the original camera negative. The reproduction of color is brilliant without ever appearing unnatural. The audio is mono and clean. Also, the subtitles are a new translation and read very smoothly.
Special features include a new introduction by Guillermo del Toro, a new conversation between Cazals and Alfonso Cuarón and an essay by critic Fernanda Solórzano.