New Order

 

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A shattering cinematic experience enables Mexico's Michel Franco to shock us again. 

 
New Order

Naian González Norvind and Fernando Cuautle

 

A few years ago I was deeply impressed on discovering the skill of the Mexican director Michel Franco: the film, his fourth feature but his first in English, was Chronic. New Order, his sixth and latest, finds him working in his own country and from his own screenplay. The film has won no less than six awards, the most significant being the Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Since New Order confirms the mastery of Chronic, that recognition does not surprise me. What does take me aback is the extremely diverse reactions to the film that have built up since then. Admittedly it’s understandable that some people would react against the grim nature of the subject matter, but what is unexpected is that the attack on it has been so vehement leading to accusations of the film being exploitative and also wrong-sided. The latter view is one based on the notion that New Order lacks sympathy for oppressed peoples while being too favourable towards the rich: indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that some reviews have gone on to suggest that this is a disgusting work.

 

Against this background it is important to get a clear view of Franco’s aims here. It’s also necessary to recognise any shortcomings in the film, but at the same time I want to assert that on a technical level this is brilliant filmmaking. On the question of intention, evidence of that can be found both at the start and at the close: the opening montage is set to music from Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony which bears the description ‘The Year 1905’ and is therefore a pointed reference to the First Russian Revolution; a final written text concludes the film with this quotation: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. What this tells us is that Franco, far from reacting to and commenting on any specific recent events, is offering a grim warning, one that stands as a general illustration of the notion that oppression can result in violent responses which instead of achieving freedom lead all too often to history repeating itself.

 

The story invented to put this theme across features an uprising in Mexico and concentrates on the events of a day or two. News reports of trouble on the streets are heard on the very day when Marianne Novelo (Naian González Norvind), a rich bride of 25, is due to marry and guests have been invited to the home of her parents, Ivan (Roberto Medina) and Rebecca (Lisa Owen). The reception is lavish and the staff on hand include the housekeeper, Marta (Mónica Del Carmen), while the most notable invitee is a member of the government, Victor (Enrique Singer). It is against this setting that Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) appears on the scene. The family have not seen him for some years but before that he had been a long-term employee of theirs and he now he turns up in desperation because his wife is in need of a heart valve replacement and he needs financial assistance if this is to be done. The bride’s mother offers him something, but nothing like enough, and a similar line is taken only more brutally by Marianne’s brother (Diego Boneta). It is only Marianne herself who takes his plight to heart and is even keen to visit the sick woman. She sets out in a car driven by Cristian (Fernando Cuantle) who is Rolando’s nephew and the son of the housekeeper. It should be a short trip but chaos in the streets is worsening and they find that they cannot get back. However, their absence does mean that Marianne and Cristian are not in the Novelo house when it is invaded by the rioters who burst in with guns intent on smashing up the place and ready to shoot.

 

What Franco portrays here with great conviction is the mindless mob violence that has taken over. At the same time the film offers clear implied criticism of the reactions of the Novelo family in their attitude to Rolando although there is no doubt that Marianne is viewed sympathetically and she is the main figure in the story. That has angered some reviewers who seem oblivious to the fact that Rolando, Cristian and Marta are also seen in a similar light. It’s true that the mob do not emerge as individuals because by that stage they are on the rampage, but the social inequality that doubtless fuelled the street protests in the first place is evident in the film. You only need to compare the ease with which the wounded Ivan Novelo is given a hospital bed with the inability of Rolando to get his sick wife a place. Furthermore, however terrible the actions of the mob, one finds that the soldiers preventing the chaos are themselves corrupt: they victimise those who ignore a curfew imposed by the army and are ready to rape, torture and kill. By concentrating on what happens to the main characters, New Order has no space to detail the collusion involved at this level, but by its close it is apparent that the military and the rulers are in league and that the film is denouncing them.

 

New Order does become a catalogue of horrors, but its power comes from the credibility of events, the firm grip of the narrative and the conviction of the cast admirably headed by Naian González Novind. The rich are in no way caricatured but are most certainly not let off the hook. Despite that, Franco’s approach is concentrated in a way that causes the social context to be implied rather than investigated in full and to some extent that can feel like a limitation. Nevertheless, the film is properly uncomfortable viewing. Contrary to what some critics have suggested that never results from Franco filming the violence in an exploitative manner (in fact the impact is achieved without dwelling directly on gore and close-up details). The horror that we feel stems as intended from the sense that a world which should be as safe as the one that most of us live in has come under attack - and what is more it has done so in circumstances which mean that even the innocent are unlikely to survive. New Order offers a brutal truth with nothing for our comfort.

 

Original title: Nuevo orden.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Naian González Norvind, Fernando Cuautle, Diego Boneta, Mónica Del Carmen, Eligio Meléndez, Lisa Owen, Enrique Singer, Roberto Medina, Dario Yazbek Bernal, Kya Shin.

 

Dir Michel Franco, Pro Michel Franco, Cristina Velasco and Eréndira Núñez Larios, Screenplay Michel Franco, Ph Yves Cape, Pro Des Claudio Ramirez Castelli, Ed Óscar Figueroa Jara and Michel Franco, Music Cormac Roth, Costumes Gabriela Fernandez.

 

Les Films d’Ici/Teorema Films-Mubi.
86 mins. Mexico/France. 2020. Rel: 13 August 2021. Cert. 18.