A watershed in Mexican cinema, Felipe Cazals' 1976 film Canoa: A Shameful Memory never received theatrical distribution in the U.S. Now, in 2017, it's getting a home video release from the Criterion Collection, with Canoa fans Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón doing their best to bring eyes to a forty-year-old Mexican film. As well they should: Canoa serves as a deeply disturbing study of mass hysteria, a lasting cultural document of "a shameful memory" that should never be forgotten, and a culturally specific but widely relevant snapshot of that late-'60s moment of student rebellion being met by violent institutional crackdowns.
After an opening title announcing the film as "a true story," Canoa begins with a dry recounting of its far-off climax, in the form of a dispatch rattled off by phone to a newsroom hack. The report lays out the basic details of that true story: on September 14, 1968, five young employees of the University of Puebla were lynched, most of them fatally, in the small town of San Miguel Canoa. In so doing, Cazals and screenwriter Tomás Pérez Turrent create a baseline of suspense as we wait for the shoe to drop, but they also make a statement justifying their narrative version of events: there's so much more here than the plain facts would indicate, so much more to investigate, question, and feel. Cazals and Turrent have another ace in the hole: the events in Canoa preceded, by only two weeks, the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, a violent Mexican Army putdown of a student-led political demonstration.
As such, Canoa indirectly conjures a taboo subject, and somewhat miraculously, given that the film only exists due to government funding. Cazals' film exhibited textual, subtextual, and formal daring then, and remains relevant now, in its depiction of on-the-ground violence the Mexican government and its agents fail to contain. Equal to the film's implicit political critique is its creep-out factor, pitched somewhere between the weird social satire of The Twilight Zone and out-and-out slasher horror. Fueling the plot's steady descent into madness are paranoia over supposedly anti-Catholic Communism and the local Catholic priest's corruption, enabled by onerous taxation and justified by his promotion of "progress." Then, on a dark and stormy night, a happy-go-lucky bunch of tourists fall victim to a terrifying mob wielding clubs, machetes, and torches.
Turrent shows an interest in the transmission of stories, and experiments with narrative techniques: corridos come up as a source of news, as do newspaper and television journalism (complete with whirring-camera sound effects), and amplification in and around the town church plays a notable role, first in a P.A. system used to sow fear, then in a flashback's church's microphone, used for the same purpose. Canoa also employs both voice-over narration and an unreliable narrator (a wry town native) to disseminate information. At one point, the latter promises dread deeds to come from the town's hysteria: "I wanna tell you real clear—and you can trust me like your personal friend. Some bad shit is gonna happen in this town...The whole town's been jumpy for a while now."
Cinematographer Álex Phillips Jr. splashes color throughout the dark night that takes up most of the story, a tactic that culminates in a tartly ironic resolution of boldly colorful, sunny festivities putting into relief the film's depiction of humanity perverted by wayward morality. Canoa suffers in a few cases from overacting that stands out in contrast to the superior lower-key performance style that is the film's default. Otherwise, any awkwardness is entirely intentional on Cazals' part: the clashing narrative styles of Brechtian remove and you-are-there horror give the film a unique power.
Criterion gives Canoa: A Shameful Memory its domestic-distribution debut in an impressive Blu-ray special edition. Picture quality fairly dazzles in a 40th-anniversary 4K transfer supervised by the director and taken from the 35mm original camera negative. Despite the film's vintage, the image is entirely clean and free of dirt, dust, and scratches, thanks to digital tools. Filmic in character, hearty in texture, and always sharply resolved, the transfer retains detail in the many nighttime sequences. The linear PCM mono soundtrack sounds as good as can be expected: flat but definitive in its rendering of the original source element, and therefore taking nothing from the experience of the film.
A brief "Guillermo del Toro Introduction" (3:30, HD) captures the director's respect for Cazals' film while presencing some of the reasons the film was and remains important.
A dicussion between "Felipe Cazals and Alfonso Cuarón" (54:41, HD) finds Cuarón unable and unwilling to hide his enthusiasm for his forbear Cazals and his seminal film. Their in-depth discussion gets at the film's unusual financial support from what would have seemed to be a hostile corner, a bit about the production of the film, and a great deal about Cazal's thinking behind and approach to the material, as well as how Canoa fits into his oeuvre.
Last up is the film's "Trailer" (4:50, HD). Of course, the disc also comes packaged with a pamphlet containing film credits, tech specs, and a superb essay by critic Fernanda Solórzano.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer