Saturday, June 05, 2010

1952, Year in Review: Viva Zapata!

Viva Zapata!
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn
Grade: B -

Despite the film's exclamatory title I have to confess that I was more curious than excitable about the prospect of "Viva Zapata!". Marlon Brando as a Mexican bandit hardly suggests savvy casting direction for a start, and the titular-championed Emiliano Zapata, an Indian revolutionary in turn-of-the-century Mexico, is someone I'm very unfamiliar with. It's to the film's credit that it manages to sustain interest in both Zapata and his compact political struggle against the smear campaign of a power-hungry President.

Upon reflection, as a self-made pariah Brando suits the part of such a dissident, but I'm not convinced that his presence is beneficial to "Viva Zapata!". Kazan is trying to portray Zapata as a lone wolf, a macho revolutionary, and a smouldering seductor (sometimes all at once) which in turn makes Brando's task rather difficult. Either way, his performance is a little too constrained and methodical for the often frenetic, celebratory lack of substance that filters through the picture. Method acting often works for Brando when he's in a serious piece, but "Viva Zapata!" is so wildly shifting from an historical drama to a flimsy romance to a booze-fuelled union of social outcasts that his character work can feel pedantic and fussy, as if he's approaching the material rather too seriously, or at least more so than Kazan.

While not uncommon for historical dramas to be diluted with romance and comedy, "Viva Zapata!" ploughs on with a flawed sense of generosity, badly setting up Emiliano's relationship with Josefa, a pallid-looking Jean Peters. Their strangely-played first scene together (in a church no less) exemplifies the token necessity of the film's romance. Emiliano and Josefa engage in a conversation where she berates him for being a tearaway fiend while he salivates over her like a wide-eyed puppy. As a local woman hung up on manners, protocol, and empty words, she's placed at the politically-opposing polar of Zapata's world, and surely represents everything he's eager to shun. Throughout this scene Peters and Brando unsurprisingly appear thoroughly disinterested in each other and the odd direction of their written interplay. After Zapata departs, Josefa's friend remarks that she likes the man (why we do not know), before Josefa herself makes the most unfathomable about-turn and agrees. As a way of constructing their predicament as a "couple" this immediately asserted to me that "Viva Zapata!" is made to be observed and not understood, which is a little unfair considering how adept it is at generating action and intrigue.

The presence of the effortlessly light and amiable Anthony Quinn does little to distill the aroma of frivolity in "Viva Zapata!", his trademark crowing an aide to the film's lively tone, and a nice parallel to the rumbunctious score from Alex North. Kazan manages to create a believeable core in Zapata's revolutionary community, who are all reverent of a man that never appears to be as emotionally involved as they. There is a history of portraying activism as passive escape, a stern look here, a swig of rum there, organisation as a secondary, trivial afterthought. Rather like my last 1952 foray into John Ford's The Quiet Man tradition is given higher status than mobility, since Zapata feels to be trying to resurrect a time that's since passed, resisting social and cultural transition. It can be argued then that Kazan's style is a trusty colleague to his subject's shun of infrastructure as a means of control, but to me unlikely, given that "Viva Zapata!" tends to project a single-minded view of the period. Carpetbagging and capitalism had saddled the small-town world with a choice between a seemingly permanent state of regression and a change in ideals and expectations. Nobody in "Viva Zapata!" has a great sense of nationalism, and the hypocrisy of Zapata's politics is demonstrated through overblown, carnivalesque drama and Shakespearian levels of tomfoolery. This is a story about people doing what they want, when they want, because they can.

"Viva Zapata!" is a film I'm more comfortable being a fan of than an advocate of, considering it doesn't really say an awful lot about either the man or the political situation of the moment. There appears to be an unimposed cap on what can be said, given the resounding view of its characters as a cavalcade of lost souls. It's ultimately apt that this film has its heralded title since it's a redundant championing of an utterly free-spirited disciple of life, so blithely unconcerned with reciting turning points in history, a carefree permanent struggle. To all intents and purposes "Viva Zapata!" really isn't an historical drama at all, but rather a daringly positive view of life in a mournful time for Mexico. It's just as well; the show must go on, and all that jazz.

Academy Awards

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Anthony Quinn

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Marlon Brando
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay
Best Art Direction
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

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