12 August, 2016

Citlalli's Prayer

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire has been better documented by more learned scholars than me;  suffice to say it was the significant event in the colonization of The Americas.  In 1521, Hernán Cortés took control of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec kingdom became the colony of New Spain.  On its rubble, Mexico City was born.  “Social historians like to focus on the fact that Cortés destroyed Tenochtitlan,” says Historian Felix D. Almaraz, “but what they conveniently overlook is that out of the rubble Cortés created Mexico City [which] became the political, religious and cultural center of New Spain.” 

Floods of Missionaries poured in, evangelizing the native Indians.  More than just a religion, The Church permeated Mexican society.  Long accustomed to the powerful priests of the Aztecs, the Indians readily adapted to the icons and rituals of The Roman Catholic Church.  Even the fundamental belief -- Christ’s sacrifice on The Cross -- was easily meshed with the Indians’ ancient belief in the power of blood sacrifice.  Several Indian Gods were Christianized, taking on the identity of The Catholic Saint.  Most significantly, the Aztec Goddess Tonantzin was resanctified as The Virgin of Guadalupe, an Indian incarnation of The Virgin Mary.  “There’s no question,” says Historian Raquel Aubio-Goldsmith, “that The Virgin of Guadalupe is connected to the indigenous past because of where she appeared, on a hill where there had been a temple to Tonantzin.  The person who sees her was an Indian, Juan Diego [this is now 1531], and her appearance opened the possibility of bringing people into Christianity.”

By the end of The 16th Century there was a wide network of shrines to The Virgin of Guadalupe throughout Mexico, and Her appearance to Juan Diego was documented by Miquel Sánchez in 1648.  The devotion continued to grow, especially when She was credited with ending a deadly epidemic that ravaged Mexico City in 1736.  In 1737 She was proclaimed Patroness of Mexico City, and in 1746 her patronage was accepted by all the territories of New Spain (which by then included part of present-day California as well as regions in Guatemala and El Salvador).
But The Virgin of Guadalupe’s role in Mexican history is not limited to religion, as She played an important role in Mexican Nationalism.  In 1810, Miguel Hidalgo named Her the Patroness of his Spanish revolt;  their battle cry, “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.”  During a religious revival in the late 19th century, preachers declared that She not only freed Her people from idolatry but reconciled the Spanish and indigenous peoples in a common devotion.  In 1914, Emiliano Zapata carried Her banner when he entered Mexico City.  And in The Mexican Civil War (1926-1929), the rebels again championed her image. 

She is more than just Mexico’s Patroness.  She is the country’s mother. 

                   What does this mean to the enchanting tale of a young lady dreaming of something more in present day Los Angeles?  For Citlalli, the lead character in today’s story -- as well as Diana Kongkasem, its Writer-Director -- I imagine a great deal.

                   But we’ll get to that.

                   Citlalli’s Prayer, an eleven-minute Short from Kongkasem’s 2002 New York University Film Program, is the story of a young girl who is bullied at her new school and looks to a certain magical mother as her safeguard and safe-haven.  It is a simple story but that’s part of its strength.  I’ve already called it enchanting, and it’s easily that, but -- as a fairy tale, a parable -- I’ll also call it magical indeed because -- while the audience is left impressed by the artistry (crucial to all entertainment, even magic) -- Kongkasem wisely leaves us wondering what has happened.  More significantly, she lets us decide what it means.

                   It may seem trite to say the story is told from Citlalli’s point of view, but that’s not quite accurate.  Instead, it feels as if Kongkasem -- clearly comfortable in a child’s world -- has made us Citlalli’s invisible friend and we’re going through Citlalli’s life directly beside her.  To wit, when we see her Mother, we never quite see her face, as if we never raise our child’s head that far;  alas, I wish this was the same for The School Teacher.  (It’s also worth pointing out that even when we see the embodiment of our magical mother, we never quite see Her face either.  But more on Her in a moment.)  Whenever we interact with the world, being right next to our child heroine, it’s always from that level.  When we do experience another, the change is pointedly personified by … well, faith.

  Shot on 16MM in 1.33 (that wonderful square of old) by Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope) in a beautifully tinged palette, we find ourselves immersed in Citlalli’s world.  We could easily turn off the Color and find ourselves immersed in Jean-Pierre Jeunet shot by Gabriel Figueroa.  And that feels deliberate;  not decreed by monetary restrictions.  Kongkasem doesn’t take our hand and lead us into her film but instead drops us -- full deep end -- into her painting.  Set-in and shot-in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, there are no -- and consider the subject matter -- postcard pics of The City Of Angels;  no Hollywood sign or Beach or even Downtown … and that’s a good thing.  This is a story that belongs in Citlalli’s bubble.  Not at all claustrophobic (the opening shot is clouds against a bright blue sky) but -- whether inside or out -- there’s little room to breathe … again a good thing.  We feel Citlalli’s yearning to break free right along with her.

                And that painting?  When the palette is truly vibrant, it’s with the splashes of how Citlalli sees the world;  all its beauty in what she finds beautiful:  the Papel Picado hanging like stars in her bedroom, the painting of The Virgin of Guadalupe on the street wall as she walks to school, the flowers in her school’s courtyard.  Even when the bullies are bullying -- a heartbreaking beat in any context (and Kongkasem applaudingly sidesteps cliché) -- we’re not stricken for our hero because we know she’s better than they are.  (Admittedly, “better” is a tough word.  Not just at her Arts & Crafts but smarter, wiser;  wholly purer.)  All wonderful brushstrokes against the canvas.  In fact, so sure are the brushstrokes that Citlalli’s Prayer could be a Silent -- again a good thing -- the nuance of story well balanced by Kongkasem’s hand and in the face of our child hero, portrayed by newcomer Emily Suzuki.  It’s tough not to root for a young lady being bullied, but that doesn’t take away from Miss Suzuki carrying the film;  and us along with her.

               Kongkasem’s mother is Mexican, by whom she’s wonderfully influenced, so it’s no surprise this thesis should showcase that heritage.  But what’s interesting about today’s story is instead of using Mexicans as characters -- and I don’t even mean caricatures -- or religion as pepper to make the plot something “more” -- darker, brighter, sexier, more poignant;  any of the clichés for which it’s too often used -- Kongkasem simply tells her story in that world.  In fact, it isn’t “showcased” at all but portrayed as everyday reality;  likely because that’s simply who Kongkasem is (was at that age).  It’s not difficult to infer Citlalli is a young Kongkasem in the same way Richard Dreyfuss was Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (that film of theirs specifically because of the intangible wonders they -- Dreyfuss the character and Spielberg the storyteller -- face).  Kongkasem uses a very real scenario, untampered by a single drop of “type,” to showcase what’s really important here:  the fantasy;  in my mind, the parable.

               Which brings us round to our history lesson;  that brief reminder of who The Virgin of Guadalupe is, how she came to be, what that means.  Brenda Canela (whose resume ranges from CSI to Little Miss Sunshine to Call Of Duty:  Ghosts) portrays Her embodiment but, really, The Virgin of Guadalupe is in every scene;  just as much as Citlalli.  And Her presence is felt just as much in today’s “institutions:”  instead of New Spain, it’s an urban school;  instead of the conquering of an indigenous tribe, we face school bullies.  And just as much as The Virgin of Guadalupe lifted Her people above the rubble of a newborn country, so does She lift Citlalli above the mediocrity imprisoning her.  And again -- I must stress this -- none of this is in caricature.  Or by type.  Or told melodramatically.  Rather, culture and religion are, here, as part of everyday life as oxygen.

And that makes it even more breathtaking.

I wonder if another great Mexican filmmaker saw today’s film and was as impressed.  His Pan’s Labyrinth -- made six years after Citlalli’s Prayer -- is also an enchanting fairy tale about a young lady yearning to break free from her world.  And Kongkasem certainly foreshadows Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece in its magical quality -- its take on magic -- including our introduction by a haunting lullaby.  Both raise the question, “Is the fantasy real?”  While Kongkasem’s Citlalli escapes into the arms of The Virgin of Guadalupe, we then see her walk back into the school;  and while Del Toro’s Ofelia lays bleeding, we then see her find her parents.  Do both child heroes find enough peace in the fantasy to accept reality?  Is that the magic? 

And is that enough?

It’s too often quipped, “Great art should make us think.”  I don’t believe that.  But it should make us feel.  It doesn’t always happen (or to each their own), so when it does with something as simple as an eleven-minute Short Film from fourteen years ago, yes, I’m enchanted.  So, in that, Citlalli’s prayer has whole-heartedly been answered.

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