Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico is a film that captures the majesty, awe, and tragedy of Mexico better than any other I have ever seen. And it does so not with dialogue or plot, but rather thru "a sequence of short novellas" (Eisenstein's words) which each develop and play convincingly into the next. Each of these vignettes to me display a celebration of real Mexican culture and a subtle depreciation of those things which came from Spain. They evoke the heart of true Mexican patriotism as if it were struck directly from a Rivera mural. For anyone interested in Mexico or Mexican cinema, Que Viva Mexico is an absolute must.
Que Viva Mexico is certainly one of the most famous "unfinished" films in history, with a tragic star-laced history about which whole books have been published. In a few words, Sergei Eisenstein went to Hollywood but was almost immediately ostracized by the old studio moguls. Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin led him to the famed moralist, communist, and novelist Upton Sinclair, who agreed to finance a south-of-the border film. The budget was $25k and shooting was to take four months. Sinclair's brother-in-law was to tag along and supervise. A couple of Eisenstein's Russians comrades would handle the cinematography and equipment.
Exactly what happened after that is a matter of some dispute, including countless cross and counter accusations of extremely lewd behavior and fabulous revelry. What is certain is that after 11 months in Mexico the film was still missing its final section and Sinclair pulled the plug on the whole operation. Furious, he then managed to block Eisenstein's return to America and convince Stalin he had been a poor communist. Sinclair kept all the footage and Eisenstein was sent back to Russia in shame.
Eisenstein still believed he could make a great film out of his footage and fought to get it back, but Sinclair refused and had it edited by his own Hollywood producer. From this work came the feature Thunder Over Mexico (1933) and the shorts Eisenstein in Mexico (1933) and Death Day (1934). While these versions influenced great future directors like Welles, Huston, Bunuel, and Leone, they were not the real vision of the great director. In the 1970s, the Russians finally got the reels, and Grigori Aleksandrov, who had been there and assisted with the original filming, put it back together following Eisenstein's original plan.
Back to the film, it is essentially a silent with narration, a music track, and limited sound effects added. I don't have any problem with this as the alternative would have been to fabricate intertitles which would have been even less natural. Anyway talkies were already completely dominant by 1932 and Chaplin used a sound effect track in all his later silents. The musical track is sheer magic and certainly benefits from the extra years. There is an abrupt break when the final unfilmed section is reached, before we are taken back to the Day of the Dead epilogue. Frankly, I don't think much was lost here: Eisenstein was right when he said he didn't need that last segment to finish the film. The third segment was already just a bit long, and adding the fourth (a continuation of the third) would have unbalanced the film. Hence I would have just run the third segment straight into a more somber start of the epilogue. But the way it was done does show us what was "lost", so in that sense it is valid. My only qualm with this DVD is the fact that it doesn't have Spanish subtitles, as I think all Mexicans should experience this film!
One last thing: the 1946 epoca dorada classic Enamorada by famed Mexican director Emilio Fernandez could be seen as a sort of tribute film to Eisenstein and Que Viva Mexico, as it basically fills out a story based on the sodadera lost segment of this film.