Review: The Last Christeros
The historical setting of The Last Christeros is revealed in an audio-only opening over a black screen: a man being interviewed recounts the nailing of a notice to a church door detailing the ban on religious worship by Mexico’s post-revolution government. From there, Matías Meyer's landscape portrait follows a group of Catholics as they maintain rebellious solidarity against government forces sometime during the 1930s.
Between cosmic indifference and the ever-watchful vultures overhead, these carbine-toting men of God have it tough. Every aspect of their lives is shown, but the viewer is kept at arm’s length in a provocative history lesson that could also be called a tranquil(ized) survival-epic. Meyer’s sparse plotting and the impassive (if sometimes quite moving) performances of his nonprofessional cast are responsible for this distance.
There is little left for these men to say to one another, and, in all their fleeing through valleys and across mountains, killing and being killed, it is never made entirely clear what their goals might be, or even if they still have any. “We should die for Christ the King,” says one of the older men and, per the laws of their country, merely uttering their savior's name is a dangerous act, political sacrilege. As the Christeros continue in their struggle, Meyer constructs sequence shots that match the movement and direction of his characters, as they stay in motion and on course, mysterious as that course may be.
The (non-)actors, who drink from mosquito-swarmed puddles and sometimes look into the camera, convey a proletarian earthiness: shaggy facial hair, craggy eye sockets, and tired, throaty voices. They are men with a great deal at stake—an oppressed minority who cannot fully express themselves and carry inside a love that will probably be their undoing. When a bullet strikes one of them out of nowhere, miraculously passing through his cheek and out his temple but failing to kill him, the men proclaim this “a miracle of the sky.” The camera pans across the heavens as if for some acknowledgement, resting ambiguously on a formation of clouds painted orange by the fading light.
Meyer's compositions accommodate both his refined sense of action (the Christeros springing to the ready when a possible enemy, singing “Long live Christ the King!” approaches) and the naturalistic milling-about and emotional vacancy of the trek’s abundant inaction. Winslow Homer's Civil War paintings come to mind during the bucolic scenes of repose, while the speed and efficiency of the violence might recall Goya's iconic “Disasters of War” series. As the film progresses, the non-actors are set more and more frequently in fixed positions, tableau vivants that, in their beauty and duration, suggest that God may in fact be with his Christeros (albeit in his own discreet way). Whatever the case, dread is pervasive. For all the Catholicism present, the film is coolly Beckett-esque. It also shares DNA with Albert Serra’s Birdsong, though the screwball solemnity of that film is here supplanted by good old-fashioned solemn solemnity.
Miracles aside, it is easy to see where the Christeros’ devotion comes from, surrounded as they are by the natural wonders of God’s kingdom: a midnight cigarette shared among comrades after prayer, the faint blue light at dawn spreading along the horizon to encompass the entire desert, even the swirl of dust kicked up by a fallen body, the dust disappearing into the wind as the body lies motionless. For these men, their lives are testament to a glory that death itself has no power over. When, in one scene, the Christeros lie resting within a cave, the overhang creating something like a proscenium, the men look as undisturbed as the world around them. As Franz Wright wrote: “Maybe God would let you be the wind.”