Canoa: A Shameful Memory

Canoa: A Shameful Memory (Spanish: Canoa: memoria de un hecho vergonzoso) is a 1976 Mexican drama film directed by Felipe Cazals.[1]

One of Mexico’s most highly regarded works of political cinema, … reimagines a real-life incident that had occurred just eight years before its release, when a group of urban university employees on a hiking trip were viciously attacked by residents of the village of San Miguel Canoa who had been manipulated by a corrupt priest into believing the travelers were communist revolutionaries. Director Felipe Cazals adopts a gritty documentary style to narrate the events in Canoa while referencing the climate of political repression that would lead to the massacre of student protesters in Mexico City shortly thereafter. The resulting film is a daring commentary on ideological manipulation, religious fanaticism, and mass violence, as well as a visceral expression of horror.[2]

This film was made in 1976, just 8 years after both the events it depicts, and the more famous massacre in Mexico City. One of the main architects of that massacre was now the president. The film is absolutely a commentary on that massacre, and on the general corruption of Mexican society that Cazals saw around him. That it was released at all, in a country that was still under single party repressive rule, is incredible.

Arik Devens[4]

… this movie shows the great differences within Mexico rural and urban areas. Modernity could not be accepted in the rural areas, basically because the ignorant peasants were dominated by certain groups, including, like in this movie, the Catholic Church. Let’s remember that the students massacres that had happened in 1968 and 1972 were still fresh in the minds of many Mexicans. Those students had been accused by the Government,of being Communists… The beauty of this film resides in the fact that fanaticism is shown at its maximum level so as to make us think where this can lead us in our lives. This is true of the corrupt authorities, the Priest that uses Religion to maintain his privileges, the village people that mix Religion and fanaticism, etc. It is a great sociological study of the consequences of these extreme attitudes.

By Andres Cardenas from Mexico, 15 August 2005[2]

I think that this film has a very valid message about the madness of crowds and the unthinking, unfeeling, unaccountable and exploitative aspects of organized religion. i was raised without religion so my biases are limited (though some would say invalidated, ipso facto). i can’t recall any film that i’ve seen, except “La Mala Educación” by Almodóvar (also an excellent film) that almost literally equates organized religion with organized crime. that may not have been the director’s aim, but that’s certainly what i got from it. but, it’s not religion that’s attacked here, it’s the hypocrisy and manipulativeness of (exactly as a previous poster identified the priest) megalomaniacs (just like the jealous priest in “La Mala Educación”). while some people would jump to the conclusion that it’s religion and the Catholic church or the ignorance of the indigenous peoples that are emphasized here, they’re missing the point entirely. it reminded me much of the style of Buñuel who its possible Cazals was influenced by. like Buñuel, he employs these symbols and signs of the time, they help tell the story, but they do not distract nor are they the focus of the examinations in this film. the overtones are more social than they are religious, the questions it raises are more intellectual than theological.

one of the closest examples i can think of pertaining to this concept was actually contained in a line by a character in (ironically) a big-budget Hollywood film: “Men In Black”. the line: “A person is smart. people are panicky, dumb, dangerous animals and you know it.” this almost sums up “Canoa”. this is what makes it unnerving. it catches you off guard. the smallest word (within the film literally amplified by the use of the loudspeakers) makes such a difference in the course of action that the characters in this film take. the entire town is itself a character. a big paranoid, schizophrenic, suspicious, and vindictive character. it also made me think of the biblical account of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. except in this instance the city is not destroyed but instead allowed to get away with its crimes…

it’s not morbid, and not exploitative or cheap in its depiction of violence but contextualizes violence VERY effectively and this also adds to the overall tone. bouncing back and forth between the straightforward plot-driven scenes and the documentary-style interviews with the village people (also a device that brought to mind a Greek chorus), going between the crowds and the individual, seeing one person alone and then lost in a crowd is very disorienting but gives the film its power.

By Abid Rahman[2]

The power of this film lies in the frustration it generates. As the film starts to wind up, and as it ends, there’s an inevitable yearning for more information, for more context, for more closure. For justice. But to be satisfied on any of those counts would neuter the film: it would allow you to wrap it up in a box, to tie a pretty little bow over the top and send it away. More information would make it something that happened ‘over there’; more context would make it something that happened ‘to those people’; justice would make it something that happened ‘in the past’. The power of this story is that it depicts something that is within all our communities and within all of us, a hysteria that has been generated throughout human history and across all human settlements. It doesn’t go away, like a reformed addict, you don’t win, you don’t lose, you just keep fighting one step at a time.

[1] Canoa: A Shameful Memory. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
[2] The Criterion Collection. Canoa: A Shameful Memory | Felipe Cazals. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
[3] Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976). Retrieved 22 November 2017.

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