The never-ending cycle of drug cartel violence in Mexico is certainly not an underrepresented topic in modern cinema, examined in everything from verité documentaries to mainstream Hollywood entertainment. But director Rodrigo Reyes finds a new approach in 499, using an existential fantasy structure to show how the chaos of contemporary Mexico is intrinsically tied to its colonial roots.
After meditating on the US-Mexico border wall and the experience of migrant workers in his previous docu-fiction hybrid films, Reyes takes an even more ambitious leap here, charting the story of a Spanish conquistador who travels 500 years into the future to wash up on the shore of modern-day Mexico. Confused and severely out of place, he wanders across the landscape on his way to the capital city, observing the social and cultural disintegration happening all around him.
Played by Eduardo San Juan, an expressive actor whose last acting gig was also as a conquistador in a Spanish miniseries about Columbus’ first voyage to the new world, the time traveler looks down on the poor, beleaguered citizens around him, initially aligning himself with the drug lords as he regales us with tales of conquering the Aztecs in hushed voiceover. But then we start to hear real stories of brutality and tragedy from families affected by the ever-present drug violence and this colonial fantasy is immediately dispelled.
Reyes melds the conquistador’s journey with discomforting talking head interviews in a beautifully fluid manner, showing off the natural wonder and promise of the Mexican landscape before the historical rot sets in. It’s a tricky balancing act in a film that’s adept at exploring the effect that myth making has on reality and vice versa. It’s also a subtle call to action, making us wonder where Mexico will stand in another 500 years.