Thursday, March 28, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.8: Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 83/A-

Panic in the Streets kicked off an incredible run for Elia Kazan, while A Streetcar Named Desire represented his mastery of cinematic realism and expressionism. His next film, Viva Zapata!, is not quite as fondly remembered as the earlier films, but it nevertheless an important work in his filmography. Released a mere two months before Kazan’s infamous HUAC testimony, one cannot help but look at the film’s fascinating mix of leftist politics and pragmatic look at revolution and sense a connection to Kazan’s own political decisions. But that’s part of what makes Viva Zapata! such a fascinating film.

When the president of Mexico dismisses complaints about rich landowners taking from poor farmers, illiterate farmer Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando) and his brother Eufemio (Anthony Quinn) start rebellion. With the Zapatas in the south and Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) in the north, they overthrow the Mexican government. Zapata and his followers pick the well-intentioned Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon) to lead, but the man is easily manipulated by the corrupt and power-hungry General Victoriano Huerta (Frank Silvera). Soon, Eufemio is corrupted himself, and Zapata’s follower Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman) pushes Zapata to become just as repressive and dictatorial as the previous government. But Zapata must ultimately fight for the rights of the people, and fight he shall.

Before we get to the problematic area of Marlon Brando playing a Mexican, one must say that Kazan gets a lot of mileage out of filming on location in Mexico. Where The Sea of Grass looked backlot-bound and stifled, Viva Zapata! gives John Ford a run for his money. The shots of the vast plains and corn fields look absolutely gorgeous,  and Kazan uses the wide open spaces as a great way to play with depth of field. When Aguirre is first introduced to the Zapatas, Kazan uses an incredible wide shot to show the man’s persistence to meet the revolutionary leader, rifle-fire be damned. Even better, Kazan captures the spirit of the area, whether it’s through the lively celebrations after victories in battle or Zapata’s wedding, or, better yet, as a way to establish danger, as in the Mexican countryside as landowners shoot through the tall corn fields at poor farmers. The film’s portrait of revolution could perhaps do with more battle scenes to show the massive stakes of the war, but what we do see is incredible.

Credit for one of the best scenes belongs to Anthony Quinn as much as Kazan. An actual Mexican actor (unlike Brando, though we’ll get to that), Quinn was tuned into the little details of Mexican towns, and he had a brilliant idea for one scene. When Zapata is captured by the Mexican police, Quinn’s Eugenio kneels down to the dirt and picks up two rocks, clicking them together as a way to get the attention of the town. Kazan cuts throughout the town as the rocks echo and other townspeople follow Quinn’s example. The sound of clicking rocks overpowers the sound of the horses’ hooves as the police lead Zapata away, a great moment of sound indicating just how the peasants are going to overcome the state. There’s a steady of build of peasants coming in to Kazan’s wide shots until they’ve surrounded the police. There’s no question as to who has the real power now.

Kazan is just as good at quieter moments. The relationship between Zapata and his wife (Jean Peters) isn’t as fleshed out as it should be, but one scene between the two on their wedding night ranks among the best in the film. Kazan shows Brando and Peters in close-up as they embrace, but Brando soon leaves the bed and stares out the window. Light comes in through the window, giving the room a distinctive early morning look as Zapata knows he’ll soon have to leave his bride to go back to speaking for the Mexican people. He sighs as he laments that he cannot read, and implores his more privileged wife to teach him. She pulls out a Bible, reading “In the Beginning…”. It’s an extraordinary moment of intimacy.

Brando pulls that scene off with his special mixture of instinctiveness and sensitivity, and the rest of his performance is equally successful. Yes, it must be said that he doesn’t pass for Mexican, but he captures Zapata’s soul better than almost any other actor of the era could have, never falling into caricature or mannered dialects. As interpreted by Brando, Zapata is a simple but dignified man who only wants what’s best for his people, and his moments of righteous anger at tyrants, corrupt politicians, and his own followers who have failed him are exhilarating.

Quinn, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, is even better as Eugenio. As played by the gruff, charismatic Quinn, Eugenio is a more flawed version of his brother, less noble and more prone to vice. His happiness after his brother’s marriage is clear, but he snaps at his friends when they say that problems are coming, saying that he wants to enjoy it while it lasts. It’s a sign of his volatile nature, and his self-righteousness gets the best of him as he turns into the same kind of tyrant he fought against. “I am a general!”, he yells, “I have nothing to show for my battles!”. It’s a sad justification for taking the land and wives of poor farmers for himself, but it’s a sure sign of the corrupting influence of power.

Emiliano Zapata himself is not perfect, however. True, he fights for the peasants honestly, speaking John Steinbeck’s lyrical words with measured determination. When told to have patience that the farmers will get their land back, he opines that “We make our tortillas out of corn, not patience”. When a boy is beaten by a rich man for stealing food, Zapata is quick to intervene for the hungry child. He’s an idealistic figure, and he turns down a ranch begotten unto him after certain victories, saying that he did not fight for or earn that ranch. But later, when Zapata becomes president, he is put in the same position as the same president he faced earlier in the film, and he makes the same tyrannical decision as the earlier man. As the camera dollys up to Brando’s face, he realizes he’s made a terrible move, that power has corrupted him, and that he alone cannot stand as the supreme leader of the nation.

Kazan was a man with natural sympathies for the poor and downtrodden, and he flirted with communism in the 1930s before rejecting it for a more balanced liberalism. Kazan rejected it, in his words, as a result of the repressive Stalinist regime, which he saw only as another extension of totalitarianism similar to that of Hitler and Mussolini’s fascism. In Viva Zapata!, one character wonders aloud if “a good thing can come from a bad act? Can peace come from killing? Kindness from violence?” It’s a blunt point, but it’s clear. Zapata rejects the corrupting force of Aguirre, posited as a Stalinist figure, and rejoins the people to fight for their rights. In a stirring Steinbeck monologue, Zapata delivers this sage advice:

  “This land is yours. You must protect it. It won’t be yours if you don’t. Do not look for strong men with no faults. There aren’t any. Follow no leaders but yourselves. Strong people are the only lasting strength.”

His later line, “strong people don’t need a strong man”, rings just as true. Wiseman’s Stalinist figure pushes to wipe Zapata and his men out, and he succeeds in the former in a scene reminiscent of the finest work of Eisenstein (or as a direct pre-cursor to Bonnie and Clyde). Zapata is led to the middle of a town square, where he is ambushed and cut down, riddled full of bullets in a scene that’s shockingly violent for the time- no blood, but the visceral feeling is clear. And yet, he remains as an inspiration to the Mexican people even as the regime announces his death. “I rode with him. They can’t kill him”. 
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