Observational: Our Review of ‘499’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - August 26, 2021
Observational: Our Review of ‘499’

An entry from last year’s Hot Docs Film Festival, Rodrigo Reyes’ 499 has a short weekend theatrical run and it makes for some summer counterprogramming. The documentary has a strange premise. Specifically, that it depicts a conquistador (Eduardo San Juan). He washes up on Mexican shores 499 years after his captain Hernan Cortez did. Wackiness aside, it’s an interesting way to frame the injustices and the violence that contemporary Mexicans are facing. If anything, it connects the violent acts that Cortez’ crew committed to more recent atrocities.

As I wrote above, the film pairs up the conquistador’s violent accounts with the sights and sounds of contemporary Mexico. Some sequences are straightforward interview scenes. The juxtapositions, then, are more separate and it lets contemporary Mexico stand out on its own. Other sequences remind the viewers of the premise. The conquistador retells his colleagues ‘sharing’ two Aztec maidens. Accompanying that narration is the interior of a contemporary Mexican strip club. The film shoots those scenes beautifully, showing that not everything in 2020 is ugly.

That strip club scene and its mixed messages about Mexico during 2020 isn’t the only nitpick that viewers can make about this film. It also moves glacially. And it doesn’t help that there are some scenes that exist here just so we can observe the conquistador’s behavior. That he moves and takes up space conspicuously in 2020 Mexico. This feels like a metaphor that the film can tend to play out longer than necessary. And it distracts from the film’s more interesting parts.

Thankfully, it steers back on topic as the conquistador talks to more of the locals. One of these interviews is with a man who used to be a soldier who participated on a drug raid. That raid turned so badly that the army discharged him. This leaves him no choice but to turn to mercenary cartel work. These scenes put those interview subjects as narrators, putting them on equal footing with the conquistador. His story matters and the film, visually, shows that his isn’t unique from many playing out in Mexico’s streets.

The film lets its viewers feel the legacy of colonial violence through its interviews. The previous interview about the soldier turned mercenary isn’t even the most shocking one. That sad designation belongs to a woman, Lorena. She recounts the list of injuries that caused her young daughter Fatima’s death. In hearing these stories, we ask ourselves where did all this violence come from. And it points at its source and does so without hesitation.

Torontonians can catch 499 this weekend at Toronto’s Paradise Theatre.



  • Release Date: 8/28/2021
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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