Sergei Eisenstein’s incomplete ¡Que Viva Mexico! (1932) was plagued by budget troubles, time constraints, and impatient financers, so it is of little surprise that he never finished the film. Eisenstein had, by some accounts, 50 hours of footage for a project that was supposed to be a visual affirmation of post-revolution Mexico, but it was not until the project was supposed to be completed that Eisenstein decided what he actually wanted to do with it. He never was able to finish, and attempts to sell the project to Hollywood studios were failed, and the footage somehow ended up in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. 50 years later, close collaborator Grigori Alexandrov attained the footage and finished the film based on writings, drawings, and shared conversations.
¡Que Viva Mexico! is split into six chapters, a few of them introduced by Alexandrov and the penultimate containing entirely of still photographs because Eisenstein never got to film it. These six chapters are loosely connected by love, and, despite being discontinuous, proceed chronologically, from Mayan times to post-revolution celebration on Day of the Dead.
Eisenstein’s revolutionary montage editing is at work here, but compared to the rhythmic sequences of something like October (1928), it is quite elementary. There are cuts to depictions of Gods, symbols of war, and jewelry, but there is no image as powerful or memorable as, for example, the woman with the baby at the Odessa Steps, or the cattle being slaughtered in Strike (1925). Eisenstein’s understanding of Mexico was limited to what he gained during his short time there, so it no surprise that his range of images and subject matter is so narrow, but it remains strong in pacing and timing. This makes the montage less compelling than it was in Eisenstein’s previous films, but each vignette is allowed to breathe as a result, playing out as a simple but symbolic story and a demonstration of one element of Mexican culture.
The film’s most political section, Maguey, about a worker attempting to save his kidnapped wife from his boss, is furthest removed from montage theory. But without good montage, this section overstays its welcome. Eisenstein was never one for mise-en-scene, suspense, and characterization; the power of his films came from his editing, so letting this story, the longest of the lot, play out on its own creates a disconnect from much of what came before. Eisenstein supposedly intended to thread Maguey throughout the film. If that were done, it may have helped to connect the film, as each piece of Maguey would be surrounded by weightier, more provocative editing and would not drag on like it does on its own.
Alexandrov’s narration often tells us what we had just been shown, and so ¡Que Viva Mexico! feels far more propagandistic than it should. With the narration, we are being told what to think; with strong editing, we induce on our own that we ought to be thinking like the masses Eisenstein celebrates. Alexandrov removes the audience from the film, making it easy for us to find ourselves growing distant from the people and the culture being celebrated. Some of the longer passages, most notably a bull-fight, are able to reel us back in, but much of the culture is not captured with the same level of vibrancy and excitement.
With so much footage and so much promise here, one inevitably wonders how Eisenstein’s vision would have turned out. Would ¡Que Viva Mexico! become yet another masterpiece? What we do have makes that doubtful considering Eisenstein’s comparatively limited knowledge of Mexico and its culture, but there is evidence of good ideas, and certainly he would have a far more confident sense of pacing and direction, instilling feeling and vibrancy into a work that Alexandrov presents far too dryly. The themes running through each chapter—love and death—are somewhat disconnected, and an entirely undeveloped section certainly takes away from the scope. But what actually stands for us to judge is an occasionally fascinating but altogether unremarkable work, one that will intrigue Eisenstein’s admirers more than it will impress them.