Que Viva Mexico! (1932/1979) A Silent Film Review

I don’t generally cover unfinished films but here is a major exception. Que Viva Mexico! is one of the most frustrating unrealized projects. The work of a brilliant director who was forced to abandon it for reasons both financial and political, Que Viva Mexico! is an essential component of movie history.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The Archaeology of Eisenstein

Que Viva Mexico! is both a film and a debate. You cannot begin a discussion about it without pondering questions of artistic ownership, the collaborative process, world politics and the appropriation and celebration of culture. Heady stuff to be sure. Add to that the fact that the film remains unfinished (a final sequence was never filmed) and you have an incredibly juicy topic for discussion.

Sergei Eisenstein at work
Sergei Eisenstein at work

As is my custom when addressing films with a tangled history and/or numerous misconceptions attached to them, I will be covering Que Viva Mexico! in question and answer format.

The making of this film is a fascinating bit of film history, worthy of its own movie. It all starts with Sergei Eisenstein, acclaimed Soviet director of Battleship Potemkin, accepting a contract to work for Paramount Pictures in America…

What in the world is Que Viva Mexico! and why should I care?

The film that never was
The film that never was

The name Sergei Eisenstein is familiar even to people not particularly interested in world cinema. His 1925 film Battleship Potemkin is regularly praised as one of the finest movies ever made. His 1938 anti-Nazi propaganda epic Alexander Nevsky introduced film audiences to the modern battle scene and its score (by Prokofiev) continues to influence movie soundtracks. Ivan the Terrible was a brilliant study of tyranny but the plug was pulled on the project when the metaphors began to hit a little too close for Stalin’s taste.

But what was Mr. Eisenstein doing between the end of the silent era and his triumphal comeback with Alexander Nevsky? The answer is Que Viva Mexico! 

Gorgeous photography
Gorgeous photography

The story of the film and how it ended up unfinished could really fill its own book. Here is the extremely abbreviated version:

Eisenstein arrived in Hollywood but the deal with Paramount fell through and he did not find a studio or script situation that suited him. Author Upton (The Jungle) Sinclair and his wife, as well as several of their friends, agreed to finance Eistenstein’s plans to make a short documentary subject in Mexico, a country that the Russian director had long been intrigued with.

Team Russia!
Team Russia!

Eisenstein traveled to Mexico with fellow director Grigori Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse. While there, he shot 50-60 hours of film. Eisenstein’s backers saw their money dwindle and lost patience. At the same time, the director was ordered to return to the USSR posthaste, forcing him to leave his precious footage behind. Eisenstein was unable to return to California to edit his film and moved on to other projects.

(The footage was subsequently edited into other films and Sinclair donated the material to the Museum of Modern Art after Eisenstein’s death.)

Grigori Aleksandrov introduces the film
Grigori Aleksandrov introduces the film

Over the ensuing decades, the unedited film became a minor political football for the USA and USSR. Did Upton Sinclair withhold the footage from the eager Russians? Or did Stalin block the footage from being returned to punish Eisenstein as a Trotskyite? Or was it a combination?

The footage was finally returned to Russia and in the 1970’s, Grigori Aleksandrov (the last surviving member of Eisenstein’s Mexican trio) took charge of editing it into a proper film, which was finally released in 1979. Que Viva Mexico! as we know it is the result of this project.

Wait a minutes, Que Viva Mexico! has narration. That means it is not a silent film!

How much silence?
How much silence?

The movie was shot silent and Russian narration based on Eisenstein’s notes and read by Ukrainian actor-director Sergey Bondarchuk (another of my favorites!) was added decades later. While we are used to silent films having no spoken words at all, the practice of having a live narrator was actually common practice in Germany, Italy and particularly Japan.

Let the images tell the story
Let the images tell the story

A silent film is a movie that uses no spoken dialogue and uses visual elements to tell its story. However, sound was still very much a part of the art in the form of music (both instrumental and vocal) as well as sound effect. I feel that this film satisfies these requirements and can be counted as a silent film.

How unfinished was the picture?

A whole lot of striking footage and no story
A whole lot of striking footage and no story

The version of Que Viva Mexico! created by Aleksandrov used the unedited footage from Mexico, supplemented by Eisenstein’s correspondence and his conversations with his compatriots. Eisenstein– famed and renowned for his emphasis on editing in his films– did not edit a single foot of the finished product, making this unfinished film quite raw, indeed.

Eisenstein’s vision of the film changed as he worked and it is impossible to say what notes and conversations reflect what would have been the “real” product.

So is this a Sergei Eisenstein film or not?

Who is really the director?
Who is really the director?

An excellent question and we are going back to Russia for the answer. The closest equivalent to this issue is the work of another Russian genius, Modest Mussorgsky.  A composer of rare innovation and imagination, Mussorgsky died of acute alcoholism at the age of 42. He left behind several unfinished works (and piano works that would later be orchestrated by friends and admirers) the most challenging of which was the opera Khovanshchina.

Does the creation belong to the original author or the man who finished the job?
Does the creation belong to the original author or the man who finished the job?

The opera was first orchestrated by Mussorgsky’s friend and fellow composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky-Korsakov’s music was more conventionally beautiful than Mussorgsky’s mad invention and his orchestration reflects his taste. Later, the opera was re-orchestrated by Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich tended toward a more modern and discordant sound. (Orchestration was also attempted by Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky. Leopold Stokowski later orchestrated portions of the opera. However, the Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich versions are by far the most famous and popular.)

A compromise but worth seeing
A compromise but worth seeing

Was either version what Mussorgsky intended? Almost certainly not. By their very nature, the resulting operas were uneven collaborations between composers living and dead. I say they are uneven because Mussorgsky certainly did not have the final say on the orchestration. But are these orchestrations works of art? Emphatically, yes!

(For the record, I prefer the Shostakovich orchestration but this may just because it is the version the late Claudio Abbado conducts. I will basically love anything conducted by Abbado.)

Where do all the pieces belong?
Where do all the pieces belong?

Que Viva Mexico! can best be described as a Sergei Eistenstein/Grigori Aleksandrov collaboration. The film was being planned on the fly with Eisenstein’s vision for the finished product evolving as he worked. We have no way to knowing what the great director would have done once he entered the editing room. All we have is our best guess and our attempts at that uneven collaboration. It is a tantalizing puzzle that continues to intrigue film experts from around the world.

The ultimate cinematic puzzle
The ultimate cinematic puzzle

If you want a little insight into the style of Aleksandrov in his solo work, Mosfilm has one of his most famous films, Volga-Volga, available for free and legal viewing. If you think Russian films are dreary, get ready for a treat! This zany little confection is an energetic musical with characters who know they are in a movie– and berate the camera to prove it. Thank you, Mosfilm!

(Yes, I know this was Stalin’s favorite film. For the record, Mussolini sent Anita Page a deluge of fan letters, Joseph Goebbels loved Gone With the Wind and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Kim Jong-il reportedly was nuts for James Bond and Rambo. Now let’s move on.)

Is Que Viva Mexico! enjoyable to watch in its current state?

Injustice and revolution
Injustice and revolution

Que Viva Mexico! must be taken for what it is: Mexico’s history and culture as told through a Soviet viewpoint. There is no true plot but rather an overreaching theme of the resilience of the Mexican people and the country’s march to revolution and freedom.

There are many striking scenes and sequences but the entire picture has a loose, unfettered feel. However, the visual beauties that it contains more than make up for the lack of structure.

Seeking out beauty
Seeking out beauty

What is most striking about the imagery is Eisenstein’s ability to find natural beauty in the buildings, dress, clothing and features of ordinary citizens. He shoots fine buildings but also discovers the regal beauty of the agave and the banana trees that dot the landscape. He also finds echoes in both natural and artificial shapes. His repetition of the half-moon shape (a hammock, a necklace, floral arches) could symbolize fertility– or does it represent the yoke of servitude?

On a side note, I found the bullfight particularly hard to stomach. I have never enjoyed the concept of beautifully dressed young men torturing an animal to death. Eisenstein’s footage shows the rich pageantry of the event but it also does not shy away from its innate cruelty. The camera does not pan away as the bull is fatally stabbed and its twitching body hauled away.

Cruelty and death are always present
Cruelty and death are always present

Yet another theme of the film: resplendent beauty among the wealthy with cruelty below the surface. Meanwhile, the poor and common are celebrated for their strength and ability to mock death. Eisenstein reportedly planned the end the film with a sequence about the Mexican revolution. If that is the case, he set it up very neatly.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★

Que Viva Mexico! is a film that still makes us wonder what could have been. The current state of the film is fascinating but not a masterpiece. However, it is well worth seeing to catch a glimpse of one of the greatest what-ifs of Eisenstein’s career.

Where can I see it?

The Aleksandrov version was released on DVD by Kino Lorber.

4 Replies to “Que Viva Mexico! (1932/1979) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Great read. Out of interest, what is your favourite Eistenstein film? I have only seen Strike, which I didn’t love. I want to revisit it and the director more broadly though.

    1. I know I should name a silent film but my honest choice is Alexander Nevsky. I love its stylized acting and the brilliant interplay between the editing and the music (Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked closely for the perfect score). Plus, it is fun to spot all the stuff that got lifted for Star Wars. 😉

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