Synopsis: In a neighborhood in the Ciudad de Mexico (aka Mexico City) the annual Pastorela (Nativity Play) is a big event. Law officer Jesus “Chucho” Juarez (Joaquin Cosio) is always cast as the devil, he knows the part by heart. However, when the priest Benito (Osami Kawano) dies of a heart attack while in the middle of a rather surprising act with nun Monjita (Ana Serradilla), he names his replacement as Father Edmundo Posadas (Carlos Cobos), a man who to this point has been performing numerous exorcisms. Well, instead of allowing him to finish his current project, the church calls him to this barrio to take over duties immediately. Knowing little about the barrio’s traditions and needing to cast the Pastorela quickly in order to enter a contest, Father Posadas assigns the role to a volunteer, the taxi driver Compadre Vulmaro Villfuerte (Eduardo Espana). Well, this starts a rather intense rivalry between Chucho and the church, since he wants very desperately to be the Devil. He was born to be the devil. Using a mix of laugh out loud outrageous humor, blasphemous details, and high energy storytelling, writer/director/editor Emilio Portes weaves a weird, horror comedy out of this rivalry, which starts in the realm of human drama (with supernatural touches) and escalates to nearly ludicrous supernatural-infestation in the wild, unique Pastorela (2011).
I do not have a wide enough knowledge of Mexican horror cinema to call myself even remotely an expert. However, I do know that the examples of that country’s ventures into horror cinema have always struck me as wild, emotional, frantic and often fun rides through worlds that American horror directors will seldom even attempt. We kick off this month and this new year with a double helping of director Portes’s excursions into the genre, looking at Pastorela this week and the brand new feature Belzebuth (2019) next week. The two films are obviously linked by a creative force that is driven to produce image rich features that explore intensity in very different ways.
Of the two, the piece under consideration this week is more of a comedy than a horror flick, perhaps. Next week’s movie, Belzebuth, which is available on Shudder streaming services, is a more straight ahead religious horror story. However, Pastorela is no stranger to the horrifying or the supernatural. A very real demonic presence is at work in the film’s story almost from the start. The opening images features a man in a devil’s costume being chased by an angel in a cop car. From there, we cut to earlier in the timeline when Chucho arrives at the church in his more lavish Devil costume and finds himself confronting a man in God’s robes (who packs a revolver, naturally). Then, we have the old priest’s exit, and witness the dying man’s face transforming before our very eyes into an all too real demonic visage after delivering the name of his preferred replacement. Then, we basically cut to that replacement in the midst of Posadas performing (but not finishing) an actual exorcism for a young man (Bruno Coronel) who shows similar tell-tale signs of possession. Devils and demons abound in numerous forms from the symbolic to the actual.
The actual demonic infestations transform the afflicted into milky eyed horrors with distended jaws and emaciated faces. They snap, snarl and drool like dogs—in fact one such demon is walked around the neighborhood like a puppy on a leash in one part of the film. These creatures would not be out of place in a Sam Raimi horror-comedy. In many ways, Pastorela takes quite a bit of inspiration from Raimi’s Evil Dead series though it lacks a character like the All American loser Ash (Bruce Campbell) at its core. Instead, we have a trio of characters at the heart of a surprisingly large ensemble cast.
What I find to be rather fascinating about both this film and Portes’s subsequent Belzebuth, is how easy it is for the supernatural to get a foothold in the human heart. In this world, the devils seem to be free floating and ubiquitous, looking for even a slight chink in a man’s armor and then sliding inside. Asking too many questions, carrying too much pride or not showing enough humility and other slights are all it takes for some terrible Other to ease on in. Chucho claims he was born to be the devil, and it is unclear whether that is the case or Hell’s occupants are both stoking and using his pride to work terror on the earth. Is Mexico City just that removed from normalcy? It must be to sport a red police car with call numbers on the side (and a license plate!) featuring a prominent 666 to roll through the streets without notice. Of course, that could just be satire, but with a flick like this it’s hard to say. Portes might be trying to let us know that Mexico is a Hell all its own . . . but perhaps a little bit of Heaven can be found there too.
At its heart, Pastorela is a surrealist’s morality tale about human ambition and lengths people will go to attain their desires. It is difficult to say whether Chucho or Father Posadas is the protagonist or antagonist here, as they swap the roles at random. The performances from Cosio and Cobos are memorable. Both men radiate charisma even when they spewing foulness or engaged in some of the least conscionable deeds.
The characters they play are opposite sides of the same coin, and in another universe they might have ended up as solid friends. However, people who are too similar, especially in terms of stubbornness and defiance, seldom get along like gangbusters. Both men are foul mouthed, proud figures who have attained a role of respectability, and though they demand respect for what they have earned they are equally unwilling to show respect to the other. In an American picture, they would see their own flaws and perhaps make good on them by the end of the picture, drawn together by the power of the season—it’s Christmas for goodness’s sake—however, this Mexican Christmas is rather different than what we might expect. The passions rise, the situations escalate, and the director whips up a cartoonish yet affecting blend of bloody horror, supernatural imagery and all-too-human failings in his pageant.
I am hard pressed to think of another Christmas flick that culminates with a gruesome clash in the streets between dozens of men wearing Nativity Play devil costumes (of varying quality) and corrupt police officers dressed in dark suits, sunglasses, and feathery white angel wings. What Emilio Portes accomplishes with this film is nothing short of incredible. There are heartwarming parts, soul chilling ones, and a solid through line of guffaw-worthy humor at the creativity on screen, the barely controlled mayhem in the script, the human drama, and the Looney Tunes laughs . . . This is a Christmas movie for people who are tired of quiet, safe and reverent Christmas movies.
There is a bit of trouble in paradise, alas. A few too many quips between Chucho and the cops fall into the making fun of another man’s masculinity by hammering him with gay stereotypes or painting him as effeminate. It is not quite relentless, but audiences sensitive to such macho nonsense might get turned off. Is it taking shots at the Mexican macho culture the way Alex de la Iglesia takes jabs at Spain’s sexism in Witching and Bitching (2013) or his jabs at militant isolationists in a flick like El Dia De La Bestia (Day of the Beast) (1995)? I suspect so, though this seems to be taking shots more at stubborn, manly men behaving badly than at the culture that made them. The men who talk this way are not shown to be anything but childish. In a great moment, Chucho returns home after a frustrating encounter with the priest to find his daughter Magdelena sitting in the living room; when she asks how his day went like a considerate mom, he mumbles a teenager’s non-answer before storming up the stairs to go into his room and slam the door. But still, it’s there. Hovering along in the background like an irritant. So, heads up/trigger warning for the folks who prefer to avoid such things.
Aside from that quibble, there is so much to appreciate in this flick. It’s a feast for the eyes, the head, and the weary soul. Is it a movie for everyone? Certainly not. However, the adventurous viewers looking for a little something different, ones who can appreciate a Nativity Play where, as an opening credit crawl informs us, the Devil is the most popular part, then Pastorela might be exactly the feature you are looking for. It is an inventive explosion in a subgenre (Christmas flicks) all too populated with mediocre offerings.
Next week, we return to the crazy, demon-infested world of Emilio Portes with Belzebuth, a lean and chilling near-masterpiece of religious horror, which again features a flurry of unforgettable images and an incredible number of ideas thrown onto the screen as well as showing the grapple between the infernal and the divine for men’s souls. Stream it via Shudder today.
“Movie Mondays: Pastorela” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster taken from IMDB.
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