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Ferocious, and funny too

June 13, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It's probably an exaggeration to say that the celebrated Mexican film "Herod's Law" brought down a government and shook up a political system that had been in place for decades, but if it is hyperbole it's not that far from the truth.

A savvy and savage political satire, "Herod" was the first film to attack Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) by name. After having its release nearly sabotaged by the government, the picture was a major hit just months before the landmark 2000 election that removed the PRI from power for the first time in more than 70 years.

Though "Herod's Law" didn't say anything about the PRI that most Mexicans didn't already assume, the energetic and very pointed nature of its satire is hard to resist, as are the zesty performances of its accomplished ensemble cast.

Directed and co-written by Luis Estrada, the film won 10 Ariels, Mexico's Oscars, including director, screenplay and best actor for star Damian Alcazar, and it didn't take those because of its political positions. This is a confident, high-spirited film that knows it's on to something and is determined to make the most of it.

The film takes its title from an aphorism said to rule political life, a profane version of a maxim that can be summarized in a sanitized way as "Do unto others before they have a chance to do the same thing unto you."

Set for safety's sake back in 1949, "Herod" opens with a minor PRI crisis. The tiny hamlet of San Pedro de los Saguaros is temporarily without a mayor, the incumbent having so enraged the long-suffering townspeople that they lopped off his head with a machete. He is the third mayor to have been killed in five years.

Political boss Lopez (the veteran Pedro Armendariz) needs to find a not-too-bright time-server who will just keep things quiet for the few months until the next election. When he comes across junkyard custodian Juan Vargas (Alcazar), he is sure he's found his man.

Perpetually in need of a shave, with a wide mustache over a happy-go-lucky grin, Vargas and his wife, Gloria (Leticia Huijara), can't believe his luck at his promotion -- until they actually arrive at San Pedro.

A tiny backwater where the largely Indian population has not learned Spanish because a previous mayor sold everything in the school except the walls (no one wanted those), San Pedro has a priest (Guillermo Gil) who demands on-the-spot payment for blessings. And it has only one thriving business: a brothel run by a feisty madam named Dona Lupe (Isela Vega).

A true bumpkin who actually believes the PRI's propaganda about its revolutionary heritage and its mantra of bringing "modernity and social justice" to the hinterlands, Vargas initially tries to reform his new community.

But faced with a political and social system that is rife with avarice and gluttonous from top to bottom, Vargas slides into mendacity, almost imperceptibly at first but then with a vengeance that shows him to be the most apt of pupils. Armed with a revolver and a copy of Mexico's laws, described by a superior as a license to mint money, he embraces PRI-sanctioned corruption with an avidity that is breathtaking.

Knowing exactly what he wants out of his capable cast (including director Alex Cox as a thieving American), director Estrada -- who produced and edited in addition to co-writing -- manages to mix comedy with a fierce attack on the price that institutional corruption has extorted from Mexico. A bombshell in its home country, "Herod's Law" is made with the kind of flair that ensures a following everywhere politicians are venal and voters hope against hope for deliverance.

*

`Herod's Law'

MPAA rating: R, for violence, sexuality and language.

Times guidelines: A beheading, some nudity and comic sexual situations

Damian Alcazar ... Juan Vargas

Leticia Huijara ... Gloria

Pedro Armendariz ... Lopez

Delia Casanova ... Rosa

Juan Carlos Colombo ... Ramirez

Alex Cox ... El Gringo

A Bandidos Films S.A. production, released by Venevision International. Director Luis Estrada. Producer Luis Estrada. Executive producer Sandra Solares. Screenplay Luis Estrada, Jaime Sampietro, Vicente Lenero, Fernando Leon. Cinematographer Norman Christianson. Editor Luis Estrada. Costumes Maristela Fernandez. Music Santiago Ojeda. Art director Ana Solares. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

Landmark Regent Theater, 1045 Broxton Ave., Westwood.

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