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Herod's Law / La Ley De Herodes (R)
Venevision International
Official Site
Director: Luis Estrada
Producer: Luis Estrada
Written by: Luis Estrada, J. Sanpietro, V. Leñero, F. León
Cast: Damián Alcázar, Leticia Huijara, Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Delia Casanova, Juan Carlos Colombo, Alex Cox, Miguel Angel Fuentes, Guillermo Gil, Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Salvador Sanchez, Isela Vega

Rating: out of 5

Herod’s Law is the celebrated film very broadly satirizing the legendary corruption of the PRI, the political party that has dominated Mexico’s politics. Though made in 1999, the PRI had the clout to make it difficult for Herod’s Law to get distribution in Mexico. The movie screened at film festivals elsewhere to some acclaim. It is not hard to imagine that some of that acclaim arose from audiences’ appreciation for the skewering such a deserving subject. Small-time artist takes on the corrupt system—you’d have to be completely heartless or Donald Rumsfeld not to root for such a film. I really wanted to like this movie, and sat down expectantly. Two long hours later, I was mystified and depressed.

Juan Vargas (Alcázar), garbage dump manager and lifelong PRI member, finally gets called up to the majors when the mayor’s job comes open in San Pedro de los Saguaros. Unbeknownst to Vargas, his translation from minor civil servant to mayor is no reward. Governor López (Armendáriz) is angling for a ministry seat in the new federal government and he needs a warm and not very bright body in the mayor’s chair of a jerkwater town whose citizens have a habit of forcibly removing mayors from office as well as permanently removing them from this mortal coil. When Vargas and his wife, Gloria (Huijara), arrive in San Pedro, their dreams of scaling the political heights crash to the ground with a thud. His secretary, Pek (Sanchez), shows him around the village, which has fewer than 100 souls, most of them Indians who don’t even speak Spanish. Still, Vargas is a well-meaning boob and he sets out to bring the government’s much-vaunted “Modernity and Social Justice” to the hinterlands. He is confounded, though, by the local madam, who offers him mordida, then interprets his refusals as canny gamesmanship to up the ante. When Vargas appeals to López for advice, López offers him a brief, effective demonstration of Herod’s Law (translated here as “either you fuck them or you get fucked”), a giant tome of federal laws and statutes, and a gun.

Tempted beyond his pitiable strength, Vargas succumbs and then becomes so wholeheartedly corrupt that I got whiplash. One minute, he’s taking bribes and banging whores for free, the next he’s blowing people away. He so quickly becomes a killer that it messes up the movie. Writer-director Estrada clearly revels in exposing the stick-at-nought mentality of the PRI and its government functionaries, all of whom have a grift going.

But Estrada saves his real scorn for The People, who are almost more indicted than the politicians. The People, as depicted by Estrada, are an easily led, lynch-happy mob. The People aren’t very bright. They fall for Vargas’s smear campaign against another citizen, and grab their ropes and torches. They have the power to kick serious ass, but after they kick said ass, they relapse into helplessness and wait for someone else to come along and fuck them over. They trot so docilely to pay Vargas’s extortionate levies that one is reminded of a line from The Magnificent Seven: “If God had not intended them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”

This slow-moving movie has its funny moments, but they are overshadowed by gaping plot holes and inexplicable leaps in characterization. It is good when a movie raises questions and leads to after-viewing discussions. It is not good when those questions largely center around determining what just happened. Viewers who are interested in or knowledgeable about Mexican politics will probably laugh hard enough to choke on their popcorn, but the rest of us will be scratching our heads.

—Roxanne Bogucka


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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