The Last Christeros writer-director Matias Meyer of Mexico.
There is no doubt The Last Christeros is an art film. With long takes that would make Godard blush, director Matias Meyer only shows us what's truly worthy of being on screen. Although it takes a patient moviegoer to watch as a group of Christeros, counter-revolutionaries against the anti-Catholic Mexican government, trace (and re-trace) the Mexican landscape, unable to stay in one place for fear of death, the reward is a veritable wealth of beauty. From Montreal, Meyer relayed his ambitions for the film, including shooting in 35mm for the first time, and how growing up in France and Mexico inspired his film about an oft-forgotten faith revolution in Mexico.
Why did you choose to tell the story of the Christeros?
Since my first films I've been interested in the spiritual aspect of humanity. It is important to talk about spirituality today because there are certain aspects of life saying, "we don’t need the spiritual anymore," such as materialism. And I’m not just talking about religion, but I'm talking about asking the questions: Who are we? What are we doing here? What do we want to do with our lives?
When I began writing the project all these movements, such as Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street and student movements, were not happening yet, so when I began writing, I felt like nothing like these movements was going to happen again, that there were not going to be any more revolutions. That’s why it was important for me to show a revolutionary moment in Mexico’s history, and one that has not been explored in cinema and is still quite unknown in Mexico and around the world. It was important for me to enlighten this period in our country.
I was also very near the subject because my father is a historian and this film is directly related to what he studies, which made it very personal for me. My father is French and my mother is Mexican. If my father hadn’t done his doctorate thesis on this topic, as a student in Paris in the 70s, and hadn't then wanted to stay and live in Mexico, then he wouldn’t have met my mother. When I was a kid we used to visit these Christeros' ranches, so I was nostalgic for the peasant way of life. That’s where the idea of using non-professional actors came from, too. These are the main reasons I wanted to work on this film.
Did you know the film would give off a nostalgic feel? Because I sensed that as well, even though there is no way I could be nostalgic for this.
I think it’s nostalgic because the characters are away from home.
You explore that in your earlier films a little, too.
Yes. Maybe there's a kind of nostalgia for a time where nature and humans were in equilibrium. Nowadays, humans feel stronger and superior to nature. That is why we are never satisfied even if we have our health, and materials. We cannot reach happiness because we aren’t integrating with the world and are not in harmony with nature and animals. Animals live in the moment; they may have their ups and downs, but they are not as confused as we are. I’m showing the solitude of humans in this film where people are wandering in nature and trying to find their place again. For the characters of The Last Christeros, they’re nostalgic because they’ve lost their homes, they can’t be with their families, and there is no hope for the future. Facing death makes them nostalgic.
They sing about death in the corridos, which is interesting from an U.S. perspective because the mariachi songs sound happy, but the lyrics are really grim. Is the song during the climax of the film an original “corrido” from that era or was it written for the film?
It’s a song that was released in the 70s. It's a really important song because it showed a change of perspective for the war. My father heard it for the first time in the 70s on the national radio when he was driving and he said: "OK, something is changing in Mexico because we are allowed to hear and program this song talking about a difficult moment in Mexican history." Before that, you could not talk about the Cristiada (another term for Christero War) because it was a taboo topic. The song is about the Cristiada, but it also has regional interests in Jalisco, Michoacan and Guanajuato; these are regions where the Cristiada was strong because they’re very Catholic areas, and they are mentioned in the song.
The song was written 40 years after what happened, but I didn’t care at that moment. I felt that the emotion was important. There is a song that the Colonel sings alone by the fire in the night, and that is also a newer song. And when they are in the camp with the families they also sing a contemporary corrido. So I use newer music for the emotion, but when you see the document that they burn, the amnesty paper, and agree that they have to die, that is a photocopy of the original document. Another example of an original element is the voiceover when the Colonel is saying, "we need some help and we need a priest to come," I took that from archives. I also used Cristiada testimonies like the voiceover in the beginning, which is actually an interview that my father did with a Cristiada in 1969. There are a lot of real historical facts in the film. But this way of singing to the dead in a happy way is part of Mexican culture, celebrating the dead in a playful way instead of mourning them. The real Cristiadas are more joyful than my characters. They didn’t show that they were afraid of war. I made them more nostalgic because I am more nostalgic.
Do you think that has anything to do with your heritage of being French-Mexican?
Maybe. Maybe it has to do with not having a definite territory. I traveled a lot until age 6. I spent half the year in Mexico and half the year in France in a little village. When I was in Mexico I missed my friends in France and the same thing would happen when I was in France. Now I have a brother living in New York, two brothers in France, my parents are in Mexico and I’m in Montreal. Also, my father's parents lived in a province that was in Germany and then became French, then German, then French; they had to leave during the Second World War so that maybe contributes to how I feel about territory and space.
I think a lot of people from the U.S. can relate to that as well. During the Christeros War there was a significant increase in emigration from Mexico to the U.S. and your film covers that even though it doesn’t specifically talk about it. But the idea of not knowing where home is.
The problem is that these characters were not going to a precise place. They were just wandering. When you enter a war you can never escape it, even after it's over. You are marked by blood and it will follow you forever. These characters are persecuted by guilt and they believe the only exit is death. The problem with this story is that this death sacrifice wasn’t observed by anyone, it was only observed by nature—the lakes, trees, birds—there was no one to see what they were doing. If they hadn’t sacrificed themselves maybe the story wouldn’t be as important.
Can you talk a bit about your visual aesthetic and if it has changed at all from your previous films? There are beautiful long takes. Who inspired that style?
You can shoot a film in a classical way, but for me there needs to be equilibrium between production, how much money you have, and aesthetics. From the beginning, when I was writing the script, I had this kind of aesthetic in mind. I work with these long shots, so that’s not very different, but what changed is the format. I shot in 35mm, so I needed more production. I used dollies for the first time. The other films were handheld, but I really wanted to try with dollies. These characters are always in movement, they’re always being chased; that’s why I used dollies, and also to give the film a mystical presence, like someone is with them all the time. They can be immobile, like the scene with a lot of rain, and there is a watching atmosphere with the camera.
There is a lot of natural light, like I had in my other two films, precisely chosen by the photographer and me. Someone wrote that the scene where the sun rises on the cave was a time-lapse, but it isn’t; it’s natural. It’s something we discovered in the location. In the script we knew we wanted the sun to shine on the caves, but we didn’t know it would be like that. It’s about being open to what you find on location, in the casting, and using what is in front of you. I wanted the sun to be a divine presence, too. I alternated long shots with tight close-ups of the characers for contrast, and also to see their faces as a kind of landscape. That’s also why I chose non-professional actors.
The scene where they’re walking and we’re approaching with the camera I took from Johan van der Keuken, a Dutch filmmaker—from his film Time. In it he repeated the same scene, but shot it with different lenses. You can see how time depends on the lens. That scene is an homage to him. It’s the exact same movement repeated four times with four different lenses. I saw a lot of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s St. Matthew, Robert Bresson, Carlos Reygadas, Gus Van Sant, Abbas Kiarostami, a lot of influences there.
How many days did you shoot?
Six weeks, but about 28 days.
Did you stay out on location for days at a time? How did this wear on everyone?
Yes. The first 10 days we were in a little village. Almost every day we began with the sunrise so we had to be up an hour before that. We used to go about 20 minutes by car and then 20-30 minutes walking. It was nice because we were walking as the sun was rising, which gave a nice ambience. There were a lot of people from the area helping us with the horses, and putting the cameras on the horses. Then we were at a ranch that someone lent to us for three weeks. Then, finally, we filmed at an ecological site. All these locations were real locations where there was fighting. The cave with the light was meant to hide the horses and you could put up to 100 horses in the cave. You could really feel something there. That was strange, but nice.
Is there anything else you want to share?
The actors were really great. It was their first experience with filmmaking, expect for the guy who is called Perro, he was in one other film, but he is not a professional actor. Some of them went on diets so they could look thinner. They were eating half of the tortillas than they used to eat and they stopped drinking Coca-Cola, and they let their beards grow for three months. They were so focused and working with them was the most wonderful part for me. It was amazing how they understood the camera after just two or three days.