Title: Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Country: Netherlands, Mexico, Belgium, Finland, France
Language: English, Spanish
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Romance
Director/Writer: Peter Greenaway
Cinematography: Reinier van Brummelen
As the title indicates, this is a biopic inspired by the Mexican days of Soviet Union cinema vanguard Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), after his sortie into Hollywood proved to be futile, in 1930, he was assigned to make the ambitious but ultimately problematic project QUE VIVA MEXICO in Mexico (the whole ordeal is worthy of its own screen re-enactment), which Eisenstein would later relinquishes, a relatively intact version would only be released posthumously in 1979.
No one would expect Peter Greenaway’s treatment to be strictly reverent, although now in his seventies, Greenaway has no hesitation of venturing into the prurient facet of Eisenstein’s idiosyncrasy and abandon, preponderantly, the film is a two-hander between Sergei (Bäck) and his Mexican guide Palomino Cañedo (Alberti), to whom Sergei claims to lose his virginity. Sergei’s homosexual initiation is explicitly explored in the palatial hotel room he stays, on that vast bed, the sex temple he shares with Palomino, and coins the first ten days in Guanajuato as “Ten Days that shook Eisenstein”, a wordplay to his revolutionary pièce-de-résistence OCTOBER: TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD (1928).
Greenaway delights in magnifying Eisenstein’s blunt self-reflection and directorial frustration (although it is mostly an interior piece that largely overlooks the filmmaker’s onerous field work, excluding a visit to the Mummies of Guanajuato and the institution of the Day of the Dead celebration) through his larger-than-life approach which constitutes operatic ways of utterance, info-dumping sleight-of-hand where real-life footage is rapidly juxtaposed to counterpoint the references in a triptych split-screen, and majestic, but noticeably digitally airbrushed and light-inflected scenography, being put into great use in the flourishes of 360 degree twirling shots and seamlessly edited faux-long shots, etc., all is impressive on a grandiose scale, but also appreciably betrays an overreaching effort to reassure us that he is still at the top of his game.
Under the spotlight is Finnish actor Elmer Bäck’s madcap impersonation of a ludic, unprepossessing Eisenstein, sporting a fuzzy, bouffant hairdo à la Einstein, and gives his all to Greenaway’s undue caprices, which on the whole leaves the impression that Eisenstein is more hysterical than sympathetic, a clownish figure whose brilliance is very much elusive to moderately stunned audience, a typical case of miscast should be noted. Luis Alberti, by comparison, comes off less scathed owing to his more natural and unaffected “stud” role in the play.
By and large, Greenaway’s self-reflexive, symphonically flamboyant opus can be construed as a nonconformist filmmaker’s knowing salute to a free-spirited genius who constantly clashes with his times and whose legacy should be unrelentingly exhumed to see new light and breathe fresh air, and knock dead any number of wide-eyed spectators.