The writer Willa Cather once speculated that the modern world came into existence in 1922 or thereabouts. Marisa Sistach's El Cometa (The Comet) makes a better case for 1910. The film tells the story of two Mexican revolutions -- one political, the other cultural -- simultaneously evolving that year. The first is Francisco Madero's struggle against the oppressive government of Porfirio Diaz; the second, the rise of moving pictures in Mexico. Both, like the comet of the film's title (Halley's, which made an appearance in 1910), promise to streak across the land and light the way to the future.
Sixteen-year-old Victor (Diego Luna) is in love with the dancing girls and foreign landscapes that spring from his friend Guy's hand-crank projector. He believes the machine would save his father's ailing tent show, a sad assortment of has-been performers and drunks that limps from town to town. His father (Gabriel Reles), however, remains skeptical ("What I need is a singer, not a damned contraption without a future!"). Guy (Patrick Le Mouff), a Frenchman who peddles Lumière films, offers the showman a deal: He can have the projector on a trial basis if he agrees to take along a young girl, Valentina (Ana Claudia Talancon). Unbeknownst to the troupe, she is the daughter of a Madero supporter -- a Maderista -- jailed by the government for publishing revolutionary propaganda and raising money for the rebels. Valentina, who carries the rebels' gold with her, is wanted by the Mexican police (gendarmes).
The traveling show, a small caravan of horse-drawn wagons, encounters the usual adversity -- slow business, mutinous performers, and wagon repairs -- as well as new dangers and horrors, including gendarmes who shoot to kill, and the gruesome sight of a Maderista crucified by the side of the road as a warning to all who would join the revolution. On one occasion Victor and Guy, filming local townspeople to promote the tent show, are attacked and jailed by police. After extorting a sufficient amount for the release of the prisoners, the town's corrupt mayor and the zealous gendarme who instigated the attack agree to attend that evening's movie (to show they're not so bad after all). Instead of prosaic images of town life, however, they are confronted by film of the unprovoked attack on Victor, Guy, and the spectators. When the audience, despite the presence of the mayor and the gendarme, reacts with loud disapproval, the two revolutions are linked. Politics and art will serve the people. (Images such as these are the record of the future, Guy tells Victor when the boy shows him film of the crucified rebel.)
El Cometa, playing as part of the Hispanic Film Festival
Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach
Showtimes are noon, 2:30, 5:00, 7:30, and 10:00 p.m. Friday, May 5.
The problem with period pieces, of course, is that the history rarely is in doubt. In this case we know Diaz eventually will be overthrown and the movies will forever replace traveling tent shows as popular entertainment. It's also true the reason to see this film is not for the history lesson but for its sensitive portrayal of human relationships in tumultuous times. When his father, with his last breath, tells Victor to buy the projector, it has nothing to do with the triumph of the movie business and everything to do with their love for each other. Similarly the scene in which Victor and Valentina capture a wayward canary with the use of her skirt (she drapes it over the bird, Victor reaches underneath it) ingeniously re-creates the awkwardness and exhilaration of young romance.
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Like those flickering images from Guy's projector that so fascinate Victor, El Cometa glows, illuminates, and enchants.