Cinco de Mayo began as a holiday to commemorate Mexico’s victory over France in the 1862 Battle of Puebla. The May 5th celebration has evolved into a day to revel in the country’s rich culture and heritage as many Latin communities in the U.S. plan special events.  This year, apart from food, music, and drinks, you can add film to the list of ways to observe the anniversary.  Helmut Dosantos’ ravishing documentary “Gods of Mexico” honors the residents of the 13th-largest country in the world by taking the viewer to various regions where we observe the inhabitants either hard at work or in a series of stunning black-and-white live portraits. No dialogue. Just the sights and sounds of the people and the land. ¡viva México!

Don’t expect to visit the 9 million citizens of Mexico City or the pristine beaches of Cancun.  Dosantos spends just over 90 minutes taking you off the grid to visit the rural areas of Mexico where time stands still; the month, the date, the year, inconsequential.

At one time bulls were regarded as sacred Gods in Mexico.  They symbolized ferocity and fertility, and they are a significant part of the culture.  In the documentary’s opening shot, a tall looming figure stands in the shadows cloaked by the blanket of night. Mythological creature? Evil spirit? Have we stepped into a new Ari Aster nightmare? Within seconds, smoke rises and sparks fly illuminating the horns and exposing the surrounding desert. The mystery is revealed.  A man holds a “torito” or small bull made of paper-mâché (resembling a piñata) above his head surrounded by a wooden cage laden with rockets and fireworks. Later in the film, we watch a group of men celebrate a feast day by dancing under the deluge of sparks as fireworks whizz while the man wearing the ceremonial headdress moves about the revelers. Enchanting.

Separated by regions, we begin with “White” which takes us to the South.  It also describes the color prevalent as indigenous men work the salt pools using shovels and hand-held straw brooms.  It’s a meticulous process that requires various steps before the mineral is harvested.  The 2000-year-old tradition is captured in color as Dosantos uses a green filter to give the segment an earthy tone. 

Named after the Aztec god of spring and regeneration, Xipe-Totec, the second segment takes us to The East for a vibrant black-and-white chapter featuring living portraits of the region’s inhabitants.  A fisherman stands holding a shoulder pole displaying his daily catch, a woman sits outside her rural home with various pots lying about, while a man sits on a basket holding a casting net, the wind blowing sand off the dunes behind him. And near a river, three men wear handmade ceremonial wooden masks with long white beards.

“Texcatlipoca” takes us north as a man plays a crude instrument made from a stick and a wire.  A woman sits on a donkey in a beautiful dress holding two large candles like the kind you see in a church around Easter, and then a drone shot gives us a bird’s eye view of the vast sand dunes, majestic, lonely, and barren.  The images of the land and people (occasionally nude) are wondrous.

Dosantos switches back to color for the final chapter titled “Black” which features antimony miners navigating an underground labyrinth of caves and shafts.  With 18 levels, the century-old mine resembles an ant colony as scores of workers in various tunnels work steadily until someone yells out a warning that a stick of dynamite has been lit.  Suddenly, the work comes to a grinding halt as the men listen and wait, ready to move should the blast cause the earth to cave in around them.

“Gods of Mexico” is made to be viewed and heard in a theatre.  It’s a visual and auditory treat from writer-director Helmut Dosantos with sound design and original music by Enrico Ascoli.  Surreal and haunting at times, the documentary took a decade from inception to completion.  It’s a beautiful tribute to the indigenous people and the breathtaking landscape of Mexico.    

(4 stars)

Opens today at the Texas Theatre

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.