A conquistador of yore stumbles out of the turbulent waves of the sea. A woman’s voice informs us that the impossible has occurred: This man is a ghost, the last of the vicious Spaniards who accompanied Hérnan Cortés on his brutal 1521 campaign against the Aztec Empire. He is now in the liminal space between the living and the dead, the past and the present, the colonizer and the colonized. But for what purpose? The nameless conquistador, played by Eduardo San Juan, stalks from the coast to Mexico City, retracing the bloody footsteps of Cortés. Simultaneously real yet intangible, his every action is suffused with magical realism. He tries to bark orders at a group of Indigenous schoolchildren, but his Catholic colonialist zeal halts as he realizes his words no longer matter. So begins 499, a surreal documentary/fiction hybrid by Mexican-American director Rodrigo Reyes. Reflecting on the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the film’s seemingly disparate elements in fact complement each other.
Reyes’s cinematography is languid and unhurried. Mercurial skies change color, the lighting is almost hazy, and the conquistador says less and listens more to the people he and his comrades once violently subjugated. This listening is presented in the film’s documentary segments, as real people across Mexico — from the mother of a murdered policeman to a skull-masked soldier-turned-mercenary — share their stories with the conquistador. They are working-class, poor, and Indigenous, precisely the communities we rarely see in cinema. In these interviews, Reyes’s lens is sharp and fixed. There are no abrupt cuts, maintaining a respectful focus on the subjects. This is juxtaposed with the quietly beautiful images the conquistador encounters. In arguably the most mesmerizing sequence, migrants traveling north take turns jumping aboard a moving train, the camera panning to show their precarious attempts.
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It often feels like two very different films are at work side by side. The ghost never directly comments on what we see; instead he gloats and reminisces about the blood he shed, the gold he acquired, and the “savagery” of the Indigenous communities he encountered in 1521. He is not just a specter of Mexico’s colonial past; he could also represent the neocolonial intrusions by the United States, which has interfered across all of Latin America and forced millions to flee. This is the real strength of 499. It blends the surreal images of its fictional protagonist’s journey with its sharp, somber interviews to create something almost expressionist. This is slightly undercut by the final scene, which sets the conquistador on a new path after he listens to a harrowing story of a rape. The redemption of a colonizer is of little interest, particularly in a film whose only major flaw is its failure to address the colonized on similar terms. But regardless of how that ending makes you feel, 499 provides no answers — only poetic provocations that ask us to confront not only historical colonialism, but also its enduring violence.
499 is now playing in select theaters.