Director Ignacio Ortiz's film 'Mezcal' takes a page from Malcolm Lowry's 1947 novel
By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
MEXICO CITY -- There's a saying that people here use when knocking back a shot of mescal, the spirit distilled from the agave plant with a fiery sting like the devil's own pitchfork: "Para todo mal, mescal. Para todo bien, también." For everything bad, mescal -- and for everything good, as well.
Malcolm Lowry, the British author whose 1947 novel "Under the Volcano" is easily the best book ever written about mescal and whose own battles with the bottle were the stuff of legend, undoubtedly would have toasted to that judicious proverb.
Set in 1939 in the Mexican provincial city of Cuernavaca (which Lowry called by its Aztec name, Quauhnahuac), "Under the Volcano" chronicles the final tragic hours in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a dipsomaniacal British consul unable to shake his personal demons. Miraculously reunited that morning with his estranged actress-wife, Yvonne, the consul squanders his last chance at redemption and, through a string of inebriated misunderstandings, is killed and flung into a ravine.
Critics repeatedly have declared "Under the Volcano" to be one of the 20th century's literary monuments. Lowry's prose has provoked many imitators, and his masterpiece inspired a 1984 movie adaptation directed by John Huston, starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset. Though written by a Cambridge-schooled Englishman, "Under the Volcano" is revered by many Mexicans for being among the most discerning modern depictions of their country's convulsive and incendiary character, along with Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo," published eight years later.
"It's an English novel, its point of view, but it's a Mexican tragedy," says Mexican screenwriter and director Ignacio Ortiz, who first read Lowry's book 30 years ago. "For me, it's the great modern Mexican tragedy about Mexico."
Now Ortiz has become the latest artist to borrow a page, or several, from Lowry, who died 50 summers ago. In his feature film "Mezcal," which finally has reached theaters here after repeatedly being rejected by distributors, Ortiz uses "Under the Volcano" as a jumping-off point into his own sulfurous odyssey.
"Mezcal" bears little resemblance in plot to "Under the Volcano," but it channels the novel in subtle ways, thematic and imagistic. When he first considered making his film several years ago, Ortiz says, he deliberately erased the book from his mind, because "there would be the temptation to make an adaptation of the novel, and the novel is unadaptable."
Though he calls Huston "a great, great director" who knew Mexico well and made other movies here including "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," he thinks that Huston's "Under the Volcano" fell short, partly because so much of the novel's action occurs inside the consul's mind. Huston "tried, but he did not obtain the substance of the novel, its soul," Ortiz says.
Shot on a sinewy $1.3-million budget over six weeks in 2004, "Mezcal" (which uses the traditional Mexican spelling of the word) was shunned by most Mexican distributors despite strong critical notices and its winning several Ariel awards, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscars. When distributors passed again and again on "Mezcal," the producers made 10 copies of the film in order to begin showing it in Mexico City and other urban centers.
Fortunately, Ortiz already had a track record. His previous screenplays and two feature films -- the 1994 "La orilla de la tierra" (The Edge of the Earth), about a migrant worker returning from the U.S. to Mexico, and the 2002 time-traveling historical drama "Cuentos de hadas para dormir cocodrilos" (Bedtime Fairy Tales for Crocodiles) -- have been praised within and outside Mexico. Slightly more than half the budget for "Mezcal" came from the government's Quality in Cinema fund.
Although Lowry published one other novel, "Ultramarine," and left two more novels ("Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid" and "October Ferry to Gabriola"), short stories and a profusion of letters to be published posthumously, his reputation clearly rests on "Under the Volcano." He didn't live to see his chef d'oeuvre make it to the big screen, something he always longed for and a fate that carries a certain irony. As the writer and critic Stephen Spender has noted, the book's technique "is essentially cinematic," employing flashbacks, jump-cuts and other methods resembling movie editing.
Lowry's book focuses on Firmin's private torments and the tangled relationship among him, Yvonne and the consul's reckless, adventure-loving half-brother, Hugh, as they wander the provincial colonial streets on the Day of the Dead. The consul's descent into a solitary hell evokes the pitch-black pilgrimages of Faust and Dante. Dimly in the background hovers the specter of a rotted-out Europe, about to plunge into World War II.
Though the consul turns to beer, whiskey and even strychnine to treat his sick soul, mescal is his libation of choice (a preference shared by many Mexicans, particularly in the provinces, who prefer the smokier, more home-grown taste of mescal to its generally smoother, better-known cousin, tequila). One of the novel's great internal debates is whether his epic indulgence in this infernal liquid brings him tragic clarity or merely confusion and despair. As John Hartley Williams wrote in a June essay in the Guardian of London, "alcohol abuse in Lowry's book signifies human failure on a cosmic level."
"Mezcal" likewise aspires to present a cosmic vision of human suffering and longing, collapsed into the microcosm of a remote Mexican village. It tracks the (mis)fortunes of a motley crew of characters who end up converging on a dingy cantina in the mythical hamlet of El Parián in rural Oaxaca state. Like the consul and Yvonne, the two central characters, played by Ana Graham and Dagoberto Gama, are locked in a fateful, and ultimately fatal, erotic embrace.
"When I began to make [the movie] I had this idea, this impression, a story of a doomed romantic encounter," Ortiz says.
Yet rather than being afflicted with the very modern, transatlantic malaise of Lowry's protagonists, the characters in "Mezcal" are trapped in some quintessential Mexican psycho-dramas: the thirst for revenge and the search for a responsive God. Their beverage of choice, which fuels their passions, is, naturally, mescal, a regional specialty of Oaxaca.
Throughout the movie, a group of village drunks provides a kind of Greek chorus, tapping a rage, sadness and fatalism that Ortiz believes is one of Mexico's chief spiritual inheritances from its traumatic history of conquest. "There's a sense of being unprotected," he says.
That sense finds a correlative in the movie's electric penultimate scene, in which a rampaging horse and a raging thunderstorm converge in a violent mishap. Ortiz says he was inspired to find visual equivalents to Lowry's lyrical sensibility (the British author also wrote poetry). Many images in "Mezcal" are richly poetic: a VW Beetle burning on the edge of a cliff; a mother hiding her son beneath her skirts in an earthen pit; a dead woman lying in water, Ophelia-like. In keeping with its literary-cinematic mixed breeding, "Mezcal" quotes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and "Hamlet" as well as from "Under the Volcano."
In a critique in the magazine Letras Libres, Fernanda Solórzano wrote that "Mezcal" demonstrated that Ortiz "is perhaps the only Mexican director capable of expressing in images the means of magical realism or of the indigenous mythology without falling into tastelessness nor slipping into folklore." Solórzano also reproached the distributors who passed on the film because, she wrote, they were "reluctant to exhibit a movie about Mexico without a happy ending."
Ortiz surely would agree with that characterization of his film. "In 'Mezcal' the idea was characters that don't have solace, they can't be in peace," he says.