In 2021, it will be 500 years since the Spanish conquered Mexico. Hernán Cortés led a group of conquistadors on a years long campaign. This ended with the fall of the Aztec Empire and the birth of Mexico. Director Rodrigo Reyes examines the country’s history of violence in 499. The movie is a unique look at modern day Mexico. The film is seen through the eyes of a conquistador while being told by actual people.
The best way to describe the fourth feature film from Reyes is a docudrama. The movie follows a displaced and unnamed conquistador. As he retraces the journey of Cortés, he encounters Mexicans and listens to their struggles. It is a creative mix of fiction and nonfiction. It is storytelling that borders on genius. The opening shots will draw the audience in. As 499 progresses, it is clear what Reyes is trying to do. This is social commentary on multiple levels.
One of the things that will stand out about 499 is how beautifully shot it is. This is especially true of the scenes with the conquistador. He is placed against many backdrops that highlight the despair of the places he is visiting. Reyes manages to find stunning beauty in the least likely places. The irony is not lost. The conquistador strives to make the lands more beautiful. All the while he remembers the paradise of the Aztec capital. He is constantly surrounded by squalor and sadness, however. This constant dichotomy adds to the emotional story.
The subjects of 499 tell incredibly sad stories. As the journey progresses, the tales somehow become more violent and terrifying. It is no longer about a country facing problems today. The documentary is more about a place that never found its way to begin with. As he conquistador gets caught up in the stories he is listening to, the audiences does also. Storytelling like this is not often seen in documentaries.
Reyes’ look at Mexico’s past is certainly one of a kind. However, at some point the question will be asked: is 499 a case of style over substance? It is hard to deny the boldness of what Reyes has done. It becomes a matter of whether anything was accomplished. The documentary portions of 499 are very impactful. There is a raw emotion that will remain with the audience.
The segments with the conquistador are more varied. Reyes does a good job of interjecting comedy without downplaying the film’s message. There is also a clear character arc. The bold soldier goes on a literal and spiritual journey. The methodical pacing highlights what is being learned. They are also an effective method of tying together the overall theme.
Covering five hundred years of history in less than an hour and a half is a daunting task. Director Rodrigo Reyes does just that in 499. The pseudo docudrama is one of the most inspired films made in some time. It is also an emotional watch with compelling characters. The film may only initially cater to certain audiences, but those who watch the film are in for a treat.
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