LOS ANGELES, June 26 (UPI) -- The ferocious political satire "Herod's Law" swept the Mexican Oscars in 2000, but it's only now debuting in the United States. It was the first Mexican movie ever to attack by name the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose seven decades of parasitic power ended with the subsequent election of Vincente Fox.
The PRI was too canny to allow the Mexican equivalents of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov to emerge. Instead of banishing artists and intellectuals to martyrdom in the Gulag, it simply bought them, bribing potential critics on the left with lucrative government jobs, including ambassadorships. The once-lively Mexican film industry, having been nationalized in the late 1950s, has only recently begun to revive from its PRI-imposed stagnation.
While the film's tale of PRI corruption fifty years ago has been criticized as too lurid, it's almost prim compared to the Caligula-scale scandals and assassinations that marked Carlos Salinas' presidency in 1993-94.
"Herod's Law" is well acted, with attractive cinematography, and a fun 1940s mambo score. The Spanish-speakers in the audience seemed to laugh sooner and longer than those of us reading the subtitles, but it's amusing enough. And, the film doesn't pretend that merely throwing the rascals out will fix all of Mexico's problems at making democracy work. It details why states less pampered by history than America keep generating new rascals, a lesson we're painfully relearning in Iraq.
In 1949, the word goes down through the PRI hierarchy: find a new mayor for San Pedro de los Saguaros, ideally a party hack so dim that he hasn't heard that the last few mayors were lynched by long-suffering residents enraged at their rulers' kleptomania. So, naïve junkyard supervisor Juan Vargas gets fingered for the job.
He's portrayed by Damián Alcázar, who has a wonderfully comic face, halfway between Andrew Sachs playing the Spanish bellhop Manuel on "Fawlty Towers" and Bumblebee Man on "The Simpsons."
Poor Vargas is such a sap that he actually intends to apply President Miguel Alemán's grandiose slogans about "modernity and social justice" to San Pedro. He and his attractive, ambitious wife are shocked, however, to find that the village consists of a few primitive shacks amidst a vast cactus forest. He even has to rely on his secretary to talk to his constituents because they only speak an Indian language.
The casting illustrates the Mexican racial hierarchy that Americans often overlook because Mexico doesn't have a strict color line. The PRI caudillos are white, Vargas is darker, his secretary is mostly Indian, and the peasants are all Indian.
Vargas hopes to rebuild the school that a previous mayor had sold for scrap, but he finds only seven pesos in the looted municipal treasury. He asks for a bigger budget, but his PRI boss instead explains Herod's Law -- essentially Lenin's "Who? Whom?" with a certain transitive verb in the middle. He then hands Vargas a pistol and a copy of the Mexican constitution.
Reading up, the mayor discovers that, legally speaking, everything in Mexico that's not forbidden is mandatory. This revelation opens opportunities that an impoverished official with a nagging wife can hardly be expected to resist.
Soon, Vargas is muscling in on the village's only going concern, a bordello. Vargas' feelings of guilt are assuaged by his idealistic goals. Who needs a conscience when you have a social conscience?
To bring electricity to the village, the mayor hires as town engineer a worthless American drifter who generates sparks only with Vargas' wife. Englishman Alex Cox -- the burnt-out ex-genius director of the 1980s punk classics "Repo Man" and "Sid & Nancy" -- plays "Gringo" with that gratingly flat accent you hear from phony American characters on English sitcoms.
Although the movie is biased toward President Fox's business-oriented PAN party -- the most honest man in town is the doctor, who is the perpetual PAN candidate for mayor -- the filmmakers' anti-Americanism is striking.
When the madam insults Vargas' machismo by having him thrown in the pigpen, he shoots her, then frames the town drunk, and shoots him "attempting to escape."
The increasingly megalomaniacal mayor begins posting his own personalized amendments to the Mexican constitution that double the taxes on the penniless peasants. They only have livestock to pay him with, so his office fills up with goats, pigs, and fowls.
Vargas' boss suddenly storms in, scattering turkeys. In a panic, Vargas shoots him. The Indians are about to lynch him when the federales arrive.
Unbeknownst to Vargas, his boss had just murdered his political rival, the president's nephew. In the final scene, Vargas, now a national hero and Congressman, concludes his stirring inaugural address with an exhortation to his fellow legislators. "We must fulfill the party's duty to the nation: to remain in power forever and ever!"
Rated "R" for sex, violence, and bad language.