The 1917 Mexican Constitution featured a number of severe restrictions against demonstrations of faith. The opening scene of The Last Cristeros, which consists of only voice-over and a black screen, gives us the rundown—one year imprisonment for ringing a church bell, for example—and efficiently provides all the context needed to comprehend or at least intuit all that follows, even if you’re unfamiliar with post-Revolutionary Mexican politics. The government’s war against the Cristeros—those who took up arms to defend their right to worship—officially ended in 1929, but the film takes us into the mid-1930s, following a small group of hold-outs as they make their way across gorgeous, arid and unforgiving northern terrains, where the occasional bullet comes seemingly out of nowhere, where nights are long and cold and food and water in short supply, and doubts blossom.
Directed by Matias Meyer and co-scripted with Israel Cárdenas, who co-directed the tender and memorable Cochochi, The Last Cristeros is a beautifully photographed and edited modern-Mexican take on the anti-western (if the term suits). Not unlike Meek’s Cutoff, it depicts an arduous journey through wilderness where danger looms quietly and everyday tasks are depicted with great accuracy and empathy. But the film also recalls Of Gods and Men, in that this is a story, peppered with many songs and prayers, about spiritual integrity and acts of bravery in a situation where such acts have arguably lost all practical purpose. Meyer’s Cristeros, their faces deeply lined under massive sombreros (some of the actors are actually descendants of Cristeros), clearly have no chance of making any difference in Mexico with regards to religious intolerance. And it’s equally clear that they will not survive. Which is why the last scene is so poignant—this isn’t The Wild Bunch; isn’t going to end in thrilling slaughter, so instead opts for a final moment of tranquility, the Cristeros in Christ-like loin cloths, in the face of looming death. The film is one of only two Mexican films at TIFF this year, and a major highlight of my Festival thus far.