Like a lot of people I add DVDs to my Netflix queue as they cross my radar, and as the queue grows ever longer it takes longer for me to finally watch something I’ve added. So I no longer remember what triggered the addition of this film to my queue, and when it arrived in the mail I had no idea what it was. Now that I’ve watched it, however, I can well imagine why reading about it, wherever I read about it, would have captured my interest.
This Mexican movie is based on the legend of a young niece of the monarch of the Purépecha people at the time of the conquistadors’ invasion, and she was said to have led the Purépecha in a war against the Spanish. In the film the monarch of the Purépecha surrenders to the Spanish, and the Purépecha are divided between those who ally themselves with the Spanish and those who choose to fight. Eréndira wants to join the resistance, but it’s not considered a woman’s place to fight wars. Eventually she captures one of the Spanish horses, and her uncle, who leads the Purépecha in the absence of the monarch, allows her to participate in the war, not as a warrior but as a messenger and, eventually, a symbol or perhaps even a religious icon of resistance.
Director Juan Mora Catlett says the idea for the film had its genesis in a mural by the Mexican painter Juan O’Gorman, which depicted Eréndira amongst other characters out of Mexican history. Catlett had never heard of her and started doing some research. This process led him to the Códice de Michoacán — a sixteenth-century codex written and illustrated by a Franciscan monk that gives a history of the Purépecha from pre-historic times (based on their legends) up to the advent of the Spanish. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t mention Eréndira, who probably wasn’t a real person, but amongst other things Catlett used illustrations from the codex as graphic elements in the movie. Sometimes pages of the codex are used as something like title cards for transitions in the story, and then pieces of the artwork will remain on the set with the characters walking through them.
This usage of the codex artwork is part of what gives the film a sense of taking place in a non-naturalistic setting. It doesn’t feel like a normal modern narrative, but like something both archaic and avant garde at the same time. It’s almost like a pageant, full of static tableaux and ceremonial statements. The acting style is very formal, as opposed to naturalistic. That mixed feeling of archaic and avant garde reminded me of Pasolini’s Medea (1969) and Rohmer’s Perceval (1978) — the latter of which also uses graphical elements that seem to be from an illuminated medieval text, somewhat similar to Catlett’s use of images from the codex. Another fascinating non-naturalistic effect in the film is the way the Spaniards wear masks when the natives first see them and confuse them for gods or demons. Only as the natives begin to understand that they are human do their real faces appear.
Catlett also used non-actors from Michoacán who spoke the native language to play the characters. (The film is in the native language, not Spanish, except for the parts spoken by Spaniards.) They acquit themselves extremely well, probably both because they were so enthused about performing in a film about their ancestors and because they aren’t required to act naturalistically. The pageant style served them well. The making-of documentary on the DVD shows how the striking face and body painting used in the film was taken from native pottery and artwork. There’s also quite a bit of commentary in the documentary about how stories about pre-Columbian history are relatively rare in Mexico, let alone stories from the point of view of the natives rather than the European invaders.
Eréndira Ikikunari is notable for the way it seeks to stay within the point of view of the Purépecha, including the way they interpret the coming of the Spanish in terms of their own theology. The Spaniards are initially seen as new gods who have come to attack the Purépecha gods. Later, when Eréndira learns to ride the “hornless deer” (as the Purépecha call the horse), she herself is seen as an avatar of the a Purépecha goddess Xaratanga. But the film doesn’t present the Purépecha deities as real. It depicts the people’s beliefs and perceptions and visions, rather than the gods and goddesses themselves. This was the part the reminded me most of Pasolini’s film.
Likewise it doesn’t present Eréndira as a superhero. She is a remarkable woman within the norms of the Purépecha, because she challenges the tradition that women can’t lead or fight. But while the women are shown as capable of banding together to protect themselves from male violence, they don’t actually become warriors. Eréndira is literally manhandled at a couple of points, both by her own people and by a Spaniard, but she stubbornly persists in her attempts to help the resistance against the invaders. If anything, her stubbornness, not her strength or intelligence, is her most exceptional quality (the title means ‘Eréndira the untameable’), although it’s implied, perhaps, that her gentleness with the horse is what allows her to gain its trust and therefore learn to ride it. What’s also interesting is how from a tribal point of view, her remarkableness is perceived as a form of divinity.
Again, Catlett neither confirms nor denies the divinity, he just prints the legend, as it were. From what I’ve read on the internet the legend of Eréndira has a number of variant endings, but they are all variations on Eréndira’s disappearance, which can be interpreted as a way for the legends to explain her invisibility in histories such as the codex. The ending of Eréndira Ikikunari is fittingly ambiguous, as she seems to move into a realm beyond the human world. Is it the realm of legend? Whatever the case, this film is a unique approach to a rare story. It almost has an anthropological feel to it, but the grassroots approach of using the Michoacán actors and the pageant style give it a personal, homegrown, lived-in feeling as well. The film is just as remarkable and nontraditional as its protagonist.