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Below the Law 

Herod's Law skewers dirty Mexican politics

Wednesday, Sep 10 2003
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It seems like everybody's raving about Mexican cinema these days -- either as a merit badge of self-conscious hipness or because the stuff is impressive, and sometimes both -- yet the excitement is definitely merited with Herod's Law (La Ley de Herodes). This movie kicks the feisty Y Tu Mamá También right in its adolescent cojones. Directed in 1999 by Luis Estrada (Ámbar) and released to initial governmental suppression, then speedy acclaim and multiple awards throughout Latin America, the film is smart, sassy, and much more fun than most political diatribes. It's strange that it took so long to tour El Norte, but work this keen is welcome whenever it shows up.

The story begins with the extremely tedious image of a fat man pointing a gun at us, but we quickly learn that he's just the mayor of his village and is about to be killed. Whew. The humble denizens of tiny San Pedro de los Saguaros are fed up with corruption and exploitation, so they take the law into their own hands and lynch their unwanted "leader." From its first frames, the film happily invites thinking viewers to draw their own parallels.

Even though the loose desert Podunk is comprised chiefly of apolitical ranchers and indigenous folk who don't even speak Spanish, the powers that be in the PRI (the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party) feel it's important to shove a new mayor into office ASAP. To this end, the governor (Ernesto Gómez Cruz) and his persuasive right-hand man (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) appoint a politically submissive junkyard guard named Juan Vargas (pitch-perfect Damián Alcázar) to fill the position. It's 1949 when the nervous, naive Vargas and his supportive wife, Gloria (Leticia Huijara), move to the village, where Vargas attempts to rule with compassion and fairness. Of course, he fails miserably, but the joy of Herod's Law is not in its obvious theme regarding power and corruption, but in the delightfully cheeky delivery thereof.

Once Vargas' government-issue Packard grinds to a halt in San Pedro, a creepy yet amusing feeling of déjà vu settles in with the desert dust. This is not just a specific town, but Everytown, peopled with residents so immediately archetypal that the movie is almost a Mexican, live-action take on The Simpsons. Met by his appointed assistant, Pek (Salvador Sánchez, superb), who knows more than he lets on, Vargas soon struggles to deal with a murder victim, which brings him into contact with the temperamental local doctor (Eduardo López Rojas) and padre (Guillermo Gil). Since there's an unwritten cinematic mandate stating that all priests in motion pictures must be depicted as dirty, swindling swine, this particular one is no exception. As an added bonus, when he first appears, he seems to have snot on his holy cuff.

Subtlety is not the strong suit of director Estrada, and yet scorning him for this would be like thumping Terry Gilliam for refusing to be boring. Estrada and his co-screenwriters Vicente Leñero, Fernando Javier León Rodríguez, and Jaime Sampietro instill their San Pedro -- and indeed their Mexico -- with gleeful allegory, and it works wonderfully. Swine -- literally pigs, not more men of the cloth -- scramble through the town's filthy lanes. Roads lead nowhere. Vargas vainly studies law and then literally throws the book at an alleged miscreant. Despite its squalor, San Pedro is inhabitable if you go with its flow, but former pauper Vargas stays for another reason, which his wife succinctly nails: "Here we're important people."

Speaking of nailing, Estrada also abundantly peddles sexual exploitation as his primary political metaphor. (The titular law, derived from the biblical king, is loosely defined as, "Either you screw them, or you get screwed.") Apart from pork, human flesh is the primary commodity in San Pedro, and the local brothel run by Doña Lupe (Isela Vega, terrific) plays center stage for most of the town's problems and their solutions. Vargas starts off as a vacuous prude, adamantly refusing bribes and demanding the forfeiture of the world's oldest profession. Soon enough, though, he's robbing the place, voraciously plucking its fruits (the hyperactive sex scene is hilariously grotesque), and dictating law straight from his frothing ego. It's a major credit to Estrada that while his characters moralize like mad dogs, he does not.

One of the movie's finest plot twists comes with the emergence of British director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Straight to Hell) as a "fucking gringo idiot" (per Vargas) amusingly named Robert Smith. He offers a very dubious cure, saving Vargas from his highly symbolic broken-down car then blithely entering his life -- and perchance his wife. Moral ambiguity reigns throughout, especially when the insanely hypocritical Vargas wields his pistol and venomously declares, "This is the end of the eternal debt!" Suddenly he's Gollum, George W. Bush, and Jim Jones rolled into one -- yet the poisonous patsy is also a refreshing antidote to a stupid simpleton-savior like Forrest Gump. He's difficult to pity and impossible to love, but boy, can you laugh at him for embracing the way of the gun in lieu of any personal or political potency.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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