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499 (2020) review

September 30, 2021

 

written by: Micha Maclaird, Lorena Padilla, and Rodrigo Reyes
produced by: Into Cordera, Georgina González, Gunter Hanfgarn, Andrew Houchens & David Felix Sutcliffe
directed by: Rodrigo Reyes
rated: not rated
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: October 1-3, 2021 & October 15-17, 2021 (Facets Cinema)

 

Knowing the concept of “499” beforehand is like sitting down with a new issue of a What If…? Marvel comic book. In this case, it’s like “What if explorer Hernán Cortés walked across Mexico today? Now, if you don’t know why that’s a significant scenario to ponder, consider the fact that the Spaniard had led an expedition that resulted in the fall of the Aztec Empire (what is now mainland Mexico) under Castilian rule in the early 16th century. What Mexican director Rodrigo Reyes does here is place a figure from the past in a very real modern-day setting and invites viewers to observe this stranger reacting to a world he had a hand in creating.

Cortez and his men overtook Veracruz (eastern Mexico) in 1519 and since this film is set in 2020, if we do a little math…that’s a span of 449 years, hence the title. Again, imagine being thrust into the future 449 years. The possibilities are endless and quite honestly, very scary considering how humans currently behave. However, one of the many thoughts (or reminders) that came to mind while watching this surreal travelogue is how humans haven’t changed much at all.

 

 

The film opens on the shores of modern-day Veracruz, as we witness a armor-clad conquistador wash ashore, disoriented and exhausted. Between a combination of text and a female narrator, it is established that this figure was part of the soldiers who conquered Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) and has been sent to the present due to a rip in time…or to make a fascinating social statement. “499” is a hybrid, one in which Reyes combines history and fiction with verite documentary filmmaking and it’s something that definitely pulls you in as the journey unfolds.

The arrogant conquistador (played by Spanish actor Eduardo San Juan Breña) is essentially retracing the steps of his fellow compatriots from long ago, making his way on foot to Mexico City. Quickly losing his voice, he is unable to ask directions or find out where he is, and is in turn forced to listen to the indigenous people of the land. This where the concept gets really interesting, with Reyes subtlety using this visual juxtaposition to comment and inform viewers on the past and present of Mexico. We watch as the figure moves amongst the huddled poor and the working class (many of them darker than he is), throughout streets, roads, and corners rarely seen on screen, listening to their struggles and lamentations.

An internal narration can be heard, as the armored stranger begins to recognize his surroundings and recounts the barbaric methods he and his kind used on the Aztecs, often showing contempt for the people he sees. However, as he walks across desserts, cities, and jungles, he begins to wonder what violent part he’s had in the legacy of the people he sees. Like a ghost revisiting the past, the lives he sees begin to weigh heavily on him. There is the son of an activist journalist who was murdered by drug criminals and a mother recounts how she lost her twelve year-old daughter to a brutal act of revenge. One can’t help but to wonder how the cruel violence and dehumanizing oppression of the colonial past impacted the lives and behavior of so many for hundreds of years.

 

 

As time passes, there are indications that the weary traveler has a sense of regret over what he and his kind have done. The glory they sought in the name of conquering a land and a people has vanquished and this realization manifests itself as we see him slowly remove his armor and sit down amid other lost souls. He is one of them now and no better than any of the Central American migrants he finds himself alongside.

“499” glides along at a mesmerizing dreamlike pace, thanks to how cinematographer Alejandro Mejía captures people and their landscape. Reyes and Mejia take this once-strong conquistador and turn him into a shrinking phantom, who often stops to catch his breath at a bridge or a landfill. These are often impressive and beautiful scenes to behold, but the emotional aura is felt, as this lone figure is ignored or dismissed serving as a poignant metaphor. We don’t pity him, nor do we vilify him, he becomes nothing to us just as he is to anyone he encounters. Still, we’re in on how it his grueling experience serves as something of a comeuppance for his past actions.

Reyes lets his film breathe and speak for itself on subjects such as colonialism and immigration, but it’s show-don’t-tell approach is its greatest quality. Current issues and timeless themes are prevalent, but what occurs to me as I watched this is how all that really matters is now and how you are to others in the present. If you have no idea what “499” is about before watching, it might be confusing to catch on what Reyes is doing, but it also may be quite fascinating to gradually discover what is happening. I would wager this is the rare case where reading a synopsis beforehand will pique your interest.

 

 

RATING: ****

 

 

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