Fox // 1999 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // February 11th, 2005
Herod's Law: "Either you f*** them, or you get f***ed."
It's a miracle that Herod's Law was produced and released in the Mexico of the late '90s. Not a major miracle along the lines of the Virgin of Guadalupe appearing before the peasant Juan Diego; perhaps a minor miracle, more like the likeness of the Virgin's face appearing on a grilled cheese sandwich. The Mexico of 1999 was still ruled with a heavy hammer by the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) -- and Herod's Law takes a very dim view of the PRI.
The PRI created a near-dictatorship in the guise of democracy. Electoral fraud, bribery, and repression were valuable tools that allowed the sitting president to virtually appoint the next president. A candidate not popular with a certain faction of the party might face a sudden scandal, or even die mysteriously.
Considering the party's history of suppressing dissent, writer and director Luis Estrada took a risk with this project. (The tagline for the movie's release was: "Why don't they want you to see it?") Estrada was apparently helped when the press got wind of the PRI's attempts to block the film, and the recently vulnerable party wanted to avoid claims of censorship. Smoothing that potential scandal over didn't help the PRI, since they were defeated in the 2000 elections by current president Vicente Fox's PAN party.
A social satire set in 1949, Herod's Law maintains the appearance of some distance from present-day Mexico while allowing Estrada to indulge in a harsh critique of corruption in public and personal life.
Lopez, an ambitious party leader, is hoping to be governor in the next election, and must ensure there's no trouble in his back yard. So junkyard operator Juan Vargas, a long-time PRI member, is finally rewarded for his loyalty when he is offered the position of temporary mayor of a small town, San Pedro de los Saguaros. He is chosen after Lopez is told that he's a good man for the job.
"What do you mean 'a good man,'" Lopez asks his assistant. "That he's stupid," the assistant replies (stupid, or medio pendejo for those who enjoy the flavor of the original Spanish).
An honest if clueless man, Vargas arrives in the very tiny town with his beautiful and more ambitious wife, Gloria. "Don't you realize, here we're important," she consoles him when they realize this collection of shacks, cacti and a smattering of residents -- many of whom don't speak Spanish -- is their new domain.
He is further distraught to find out that not only have three mayors in five years been killed by irate townspeople, but the last mayor absconded with the town's funds. His mission is to bring modernity and social justice to the town, but with the few pesos left in the vault, he's at a loss how to achieve anything but starvation.
Inspired by some sage advice from Lopez, Vargas begins to use his "authority" (translation: a large gun and a giant book of federal and state laws) to collect various taxes and fines from the citizens. These bribes (known then and today as la mordita, the little bite) allow him to increase the town's budget. But the sight of all that money makes him forget about little improvements like rebuilding the town's school, or bringing electricity to the area, and he focuses instead on the collection of more and more power, and more and more money.
The movie failed for me when the line between critique and celebration began to blur. Vargas doesn't just become a corrupt politician, he becomes a corrupt man, too. At first determined to shut down the local brothel, he eventually extorts money from it, samples its wares, and shoots its madam. At first loving to his wife, he eventually treats her worse than a dog. His sudden descent into violence and greed, and the glee with which Estrada shows the rampage, is disquieting to say the least. The characters suffer -- there is no psychological realism here, just an audience getting smashed in the head with the idea that power corrupts.
There are smaller targets for the satire too -- the corruption of the priesthood, the importance placed on titles and status, and the disconnect between stated values and actual values, for example. U.S. relations with Mexico take a hit too, embodied in a Gringo who cheats Vargas, collaborates with him in his corruption, and then steals his wife and money.
One major flaw of this DVD release is that the satire likely won't resonate with an audience who doesn't intimately know the society being satirized. Because of its heavy-handedness, to an international audience, Herod's Law might pass the satire square and land on an unflattering stereotype of the culture.
That said, Herod's Law sheds an interesting light on the corruption issue that has long plagued Mexico, and has not magically disappeared with the election of a new party. The performances are generally wonderful, particularly by Damian Alcazar as Vargas, but the cast is let down by the use of their characters as ideas rather than people.
The color palette is warm and earthy, with the sepia look so popular for portraying Mexico (I'm looking at you, Traffic, The Mexican, and Man on Fire). The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is nearly perfect, showcasing those colors and the beautiful scenery to great effect with minimal flaws. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Sound is less impressive, though serviceable for a film that relies on dialogue and jarringly jaunty incidental music while the gunfire crackles. Since the audio is in Spanish, you will probably be reading the English subtitles anyway. There are no extras, except a trailer for Lucia, Lucia and a promo for Fox's Cinema Latino offshoot.
Review content copyright © 2005 Diane Wild; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cinema Latino