Rafa Lara‘s thunderous war epic Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla is a loud and violent retelling of one of the most crucial chapters in Mexican history: the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. The film is the biggest ever produced from Mexico with a budget of $10 million, every penny of which can be seen on the screen in a series of excessively long and overstuffed battle sequences, which do their best to mimic the scope and grandeur of epic Hollywood filmmaking. Unfortunately, the whole thing begins to feel like a tedious exercise in cinematic mayhem, made especially dizzying due to a relentlessly shaky handheld shooting style. But while the film itself may fall short of its heroic aspirations, a great deal of praise is still owed to Lara for telling such a massive and important story with a distinctly Mexican voice – something which has never been attempted on this scale in Mexican cinema and which really could not have been done any other way.
Cinco de Mayo depicts the events leading up to the Battle of Puebla, where a seemingly unstoppable French army seeking to invade Mexico is held at bay by a few thousand soldiers fighting for the freedom of their people. Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza (Kuno Becker) leads his people with determination and passion in the face of constant uncertainty and nearly impossible odds, while the French war commander Conde De Lorencéz (William Miller) flexes the muscle of the massive French army in an attempt to overtake the entire country. At the same time, a young soldier named Juan (Christian Vasquez) and a woman named Citlali (Liz Gallardo) find love amidst the chaos, just as the war reaches its pinnacle in Puebla, where the fate of free Mexico will be decided on one historic day.
While writer/director Lara has certainly done an admiral job of bringing together a talented cast and selling this historic time period quite effectively, Cinco de Mayo is unfortunately a mixed bag of a film, which lacks in subtlety and struggles under its own weight on more than one occasion. Certain elements had me captivated, such as the ruthless presence of William Miller as the villainous Conde De Lorencéz, as well as his heroic opposite in Kuno Becker’s General Ignacio Zaragoza, whose powerful speech to the Mexican soldiers prior to battle remains the film’s shining highlight. There is also a strong focus on political intrigue which I found to be quite gripping, despite how difficult it becomes at times to remember all of the different characters at play.
Unfortunately, much of this is undercut by the never-ending stream of explosions and bloodshed that dominates half of the film’s runtime, as well as the clichéd love story which feels included solely as a means to create an “everyman” hero for us to root for in the chaos. Christian Vasquez does an admirable job in the role, however I struggled to get behind Juan as a hero after seeing him do nothing for the vast majority of the film, and then somehow turn into a badass when it’s convenient. His perspective is an important one for us to share in the telling of this story, as he embodies so many young men who were forced into this war; however, his narrative felt more forced and unrealistic than any other element of the film, making it hard to buy into as a result. The tedious and confusing nature of the violence certainly doesn’t help either, as there is really only so much cannon-fire and screaming that one can take, especially when the camerawork makes it difficult to tell who is shooting who. It’s a shame too because the lighting and visual atmosphere is fantastic, but these things feel lost due to the distracting handheld style.
For everything that worked in Cinco de Mayo, there was something else that fell flat, which is unfortunate because I really got a sense that a great film is buried here beneath all the ash. If there is one thing I can say, it’s that Lara really does make you feel the mayhem – like a relentless force – and through this emerges a rather unique understanding of what these men went through to protect their freedom, and what was accomplished on this historic day.
2 . 5 / 5 S T A R S
Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla opens this Friday, May 2nd at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.