In December 1930 the great Soviet film-maker, Sergei Eistenstein, arrived in Mexico.
He had already made three extraordinary films, Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927). All three were revolutionary in terms of subject matter — the masses in collective struggle. They were also revolutionary in form. With his experimental use of editing (montage), Eisenstein built on and radically transformed the way in which film worked.
But the late 1920s saw Stalinism beginning to crush the vitality of the new Soviet culture, forcing art to serve the party line. Eisenstein was now subject to direct interference — even Stalin’s personal interference.
However, when Eisenstein applied for permission to go abroad to study what the cinema of the West had to offer with its more advanced technology, including the use of sound, he was given permission for a limited absence.
Travel abroad gave Eisenstein both the freedom to meet many other great modernist artists and thinkers and the opportunity, particularly in the liberal atmosphere of the German Weimar republic, to be more candid about his sexuality.
Mexico represented the high point of Eisenstein’s travels. He’d just come from Hollywood, which had both fascinated and repelled him. Plans to make a movie there had fallen through — unsurprisingly his radical ideas and methods clashed with the commercial priorities of the film industry.
But, with funds from the wife of radical novelist Upton Sinclair, he was free to make the film he wanted to on the history, sufferings and resistance of the Mexican people.
¡Que Viva Mexico! proved to be Eisenstein’s missing masterpiece. A huge amount of material was shot but Eisenstein (having fallen out with Sinclair over homoerotic drawings discovered in Eisenstein’s luggage) was never able to get his hands on the rushes and edit the raw material into a finished product. It is now only available in a mangled, truncated form.
Peter Greenaway’s film recreates in semi-fictional, semi-documentary form Eisenstein’s experience of Mexico. The documentary side is voiceover commentary on the revolutionary nature of his films, his dealings with Sinclair, and Sinclair’s agents, the landscape, history and ancient beliefs of Mexico — and Stalin who, suspecting Eisenstein of disloyalty, recalled him.
The style is experimental — saturated in references to the kind of modernist “film grammar” Eisenstein himself did so much to pioneer. So shots from his films, often dividing the screen into a triptych, are intercut with “unrealistic” anachronistic action. Stark black and white images are bounced off ones full of rich colour.
There are other startling juxtapositions. We are given an Eisenstein (in an exuberant performance by Elmer Bäck) who is both high theoretician and clown, who is childishly proud of his American suit but pukes and shits all over it when drunk — a man of light and dark, appetite and waste, humour and violence, life and death.
But the core of the film for Greenaway is Eisenstein’s surrender to his repressed homosexuality. This was fraught with risk — criminalisation of homosexuality under Stalin forced Eisenstein into a marriage of convenience. Even in the enlightened 1920s Eisenstein’s films made no open reference, though it is impossible to miss the homoeroticism in, for example, Battleship Potemkin (all those semi-naked male bodies and tumescent cannons).
The sex scenes leave very little to the imagination but there is nothing remotely pornographic about the film — though the explicitness has ensured the film’s ban in homophobic Russia.