Canoa: A Shameful Memory
One of Mexico’s most highly regarded works of political cinema for the audaciousness of its attack on the Catholic Church, Canoa: A Shameful Memory reimagines a real-life massacre that occurred in 1968, eight years before the film’s release, when a group of urban university employees on a hiking trip were viciously attacked by residents of the isolated village of San Miguel de Canoa, who mistook them for communist revolutionaries. Intercutting depictions of the days in the workers’ lives leading up to their journey and footage from a fictional documentary about the village and the autocratic priest who governs it with the scenes of the atrocity itself, director Felipe Cazals (Las inocentes) creates a terrifying sense of menace, capped by a gruesome denouement. Adopting a gritty newsreel style, Canoa is a daring historical document and a visceral expression of horror.
The Criterion Collection presents Felipe Cazals’ Canoa: A Shameful Memory on a dual-layer Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Presented in 1080p/24hz, the high-definition encode comes from a new 4K restoration taken from the original 35mm negative.
Though I’m admittedly not all that familiar with this film I was pretty confident it would look great and that certainly is the case. The image is always sharp and highly detailed with natural looking textures. I don’t recall the image ever going soft, not even within the film itself, and the darker scenes (which make up a good chunk of the film) still manage to render the fine object details while also keeping the colours rich. This latter aspect, the colours, was a real surprise. Despite its very dark nature thematically it is an incredibly colourful film, with some stunning reds, blues, purples, and aquas. The daylight sequences are all gorgeous, but as I mentioned the colours in the darker scenes are also surprisingly robust. I was surprised at the level of violence in the film, despite knowing the story before going into it, and the last act presents a lot of blood. Not to come off heaping praise on the film’s violence but even with most of the action taking place in the shadows the red of the blood (which Cazals worked to make look real, avoiding that red paint like substance) looks very striking and very clear. Colours don’t blend into one another or get lost in the shadows. It’s all very remarkable.
The restoration work has also been thorough and there isn’t much in the way of damage, though there are a few jumps scattered about suggesting a couple of frames might be missing here and there. But outside of that there isn’t anything to point out. The digital presentation remains natural looking and the end result does look like a film.
The film comes with a lossless Spanish PCM 1.0 mono track. It is what it is: it sounds clean, lacking any heavy damage, but it is a bit flat and lacks fidelity. During the more documentary-like sequences there is what sounds like the rolling of a film camera, though this is an intentional addition to the film if an obviously artificial one.
Considering the film’s subject matter I’m a bit stunned at the sparseness of this special edition. The release only includes two significant features: a 3-minute introduction by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (who quickly talks about the film’s importance and impact on the Mexican film industry) and then a discussion between the film’s director, Felipe Cazals, and filmmaker Alfonso Cauron, recorded last year during a 40th anniversary screening of the film.
This latter discussion—which runs an impressive 55-minutes and doesn’t appear to be an exclusive to this edition—is admittedly a solid feature, though more in terms of the two participants’ insights into the filmmaking process and the Mexican film industry through the decades. There is a lot of talk about the development of the film and Cazals’ stylistic choices but the feature is at its most interesting when the two talk about the film industry in Mexico and the involvement of the Mexican government through the years. The industry was heavily censored and controlled but interestingly films like Canoa could still get made thanks to the Mexican president’s (Luis Echeverría) brother, Rodolfo Landa, an actor and producer who was really intent on jump-starting the film industry in the country, realizing more risky films needed to be made. This desire gave the film industry some leeway since Echeverría (and the government in suit) would look the other way to please his brother. Cazals explains the film was a metaphor for the political climate at the time, which had led to the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968 (where somewhere between 30 and 300 students were murdered by the military during a demonstration). Since Cazals couldn’t make a film that directly addressed that incident and the government’s involvement (and still get funding and/or a release) he felt adapting the Canoa incident would work with the added bonus of the government seeing the film as more of an indictment against the church rather than them, meaning that the film could skirt past censors, which it did. Though I loved the general conversation between two filmmakers talking about their craft I still found their discussions of the film industry the most fascinating aspect of it since I’m not at all familiar with the history of Mexican cinema.
Unfortunately this release probably would have been a great way for Criterion to delve deeper into the political climate of Mexico at the time (with more on the Tlatelolco massacre) and its film industry. An essay by critic Fernanda Solórzano in the included insert does expand a little on these subjects but not a lot. The only other feature to be included on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
Despite the disc feeling a bit like a missed opportunity the conversation between Cauron and Cazals is still a good one and the presentation is quite impressive.