How long does it take for the scars of colonisation to heal? Can the indigenous way of life survive after being stamped out by European explorers centuries ago? The powerful documentary 499 navigates these jagged questions and offers a provocative portrait of modern-day Mexico as a complex answer. We witness a Spanish conquistador (Eduardo San Juan), in full battle regalia, wash up on a beach littered with plastic. So begins his journey through a country torn apart by Cartel violence, police corruption and the marginalised people trying their best to survive in between.
Director Rodrigo Reyes deftly blends fiction with reality as the conquistador begins to see how much and how little the country has changed since it was colonised by the Spanish. The nameless wanderer waxes lyrically on the violence they inflicted on the indigenous people before he meets a mother who describes, in the grizzliest of details, how gang members kidnapped and tortured her daughter in real life.
The weary conquistador begins his journey with a wide-eyed curiosity that is quickly eroded by his encounters as he learns more about the corruption and violence in the midst of which many Mexicans live. His travels begin to change how he remembers his past; the protagonist begins to reminisce longingly about how humbled he was when he first laid eyes upon Tecnoticlan, how sophisticated the Aztec design was. As he looks back fondly he wanders around modern-day Tecnoticlan to witness the descendants of the Aztecs live in squalor, wandering the streets homeless.
The cinematography evokes a dream-like state that flickers between the conquistador’s monologues and the stirring testimonials of the real interviewees. Our protagonist visits people from all walks of life, the most startling being the gangster who shows the conquistador the collection of pistols which he uses to make his money. Reyes paints a dark, poignant portrait of a Mexico that is struggling under the weight of corruption and the inequalities it creates. This bleak portrayal could have been rendered more multi-faceted with some positive insights into how Mexico has developed since Colonisation, but 499 is a remarkable work of contemporary documentary nonetheless.
499 does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Tribeca Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
Watch the trailer for 499 here: