10 days that changed the world. 10 days that changed Eisenstein.
‘I’m not so sure that film-makers will be remembered.’
Peter Greenaway has had a long-standing fascination with art and artists and his films have often considered these subjects in the context of modernity, time and technology, either directly, such as his consideration of the works of the Dutch Master painters and illustrators in Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012) and Nightwatching (2007), or in memorable asides to the literary recollections of Prospero’s Books (1991) or A TV Dante (1990), not to mention the Jacobian giallo cross of Baby of Macon (1993). Eisenstein in Guanajuato sees that passion for art turn to filmmaking as it examines the Russian genius Sergei Eisenstein and his unfinished film Que Viva Mexico. Acknowledging Eisenstein’s innovations as a basis for this film and placing it in context, Greenaway uses his own unique embrace of digital post-production techniques to create something that is both personal and highly distinctive in implementation.
International recognition of the strength of his work and particularly his revolutionary development of editing and montage, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) had been invited to Hollywood, however, the deal fell through, despite the respect he had garnered and he was rejected. So he crossed the border into Mexico with a belief that could make a low-budget, non-actor production with funding from a group of pro-Communist sympathisers. A naïve and likeable chap, he befriends his guide Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti) who helps with the language, the traditions – ‘I am acquainting myself with local practices,’ – and the food, as well as providing useful companionship and research into the project. However, the filmmaking element of the visit becomes secondary to Eisenstein’s cultural experiences and he embarks upon a passionate affair with his guide.
Eistenstein’s character – played with aplomb by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck – is almost childlike with his sense of wonder at new experiences – good or bad. Greenaway’s film reflects his protagonist’s ‘licence to show people fucking and dying,’ in this beautifully designed work that links the Russian flies of Eisenstein’s imagination with his utter conviction in his statements that ‘I came to Mexico a virgin, I leave it debauched.’ Debauched perhaps, but during this visit Eisenstein is given insights into a world far removed from the traumas of political revolution – ’14 years ago Russia lost its virginity’ – to explore a Mexico where death and decay is openly celebrated and displayed amidst conflicts, corruption and natural disaster. And the politics of America, Mexico and Russia place matters into perspective.
His story is displayed using sumptuous cinematography that combines with editing techniques. From the era of predominantly black and white cinema comes a film in glorious colour, although sometimes both formats are incorporated in the same shots. The widescreen cinematography is often emphasised by splitting the screen, on many occasions into triptych to give alternative lighting and perspective on events and even setting the characters beside photographs of their real life counterparts. Much of the film is presented in immersive ultra-wide lens moving camera which engages and surrealises the situations to great effect. To show the variance in cultural background Greenaway punctuates the film with music from Mexico or Russia where appropriate, especially the screenings of Eisenstein’s films which are accompanied by various works from Prokofiev.
Art cinema with a capital A, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a unique biopic that offers the viewer sex, death, politics and film. As to whether it’s true, who cares? A welcome featurette interview with Peter Greenaway on the DVD explains the reasons and backing for the film (including his view that it was unlikely to be praised in Eisenstein’s homeland!) and the two stars also explain their difficult roles in the film. Maybe not everyone’s taste but, if it is, you will adore the audacious experience.