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Phase Zero: Felipe Cazals on His 1979 Gabriel García Márquez Collaboration, El año de la peste (Year of the Plague)

El año de la peste (Image courtesy of IMCINE)

It has been a good day for everyone, even for God.

No sign of rain. No evidence of disease or blood. — Henry Miller, quoted at the beginning of El año de la peste

Around this time a year ago, many of us were suddenly sent home and forced to become film programmers. I asked people: after Contagion or, from a far distance, Outbreak, what was the ultimate Coronavirus movie? The Last Days of Planet Earth? Prophecies of Nostradamus? 28 Weeks LaterThe Host? Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Hole? The South Korean apocalypse thriller The FluLogan’s Run? The Seed of ManSoylent Green12 Monkeys? Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus?

Long after I had stopped following Cuomo’s daily press conferences, the answer was Felipe Cazals’s unforgettable El año de la peste (Year of the Plague), which transposes Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year into Mexico City circa 1979—an idea first pitched by one of its screenwriters, Gabriel García Márquez. At a time when each new headline invites cheap historical parallelisms, it still must be said that El año de la peste is an eerily prescient work of speculative horror. Marquez’ inciting idea was to use the peste—here, initially mistaken for a simple bronchopneumonia—as a plot device to diagnose rot in the halls of Mexican power. For many months during lockdown, the film sat on YouTube with English subtitles. Presently, the only traded copies on the internet are fullscreen VHS transfers, the most widespread of which is sadly blotchy—but it can’t be denied that watching El año de la peste through a dank, pixellated scrim only served its vision of death and despair. 

It’s an ensemble work centering on the unfolding of a larger-canvas crisis, maybe comparable to more ridiculous Hollywood contemporaries like Airport ’77 or The Towering Inferno. While the final death toll of Cazals’ film was handily eclipsed by the real life virus of 2020, El año de la peste anticipates the COVID-19 outbreak from a variety of structural angles. The film eerily foretells, for example, the flight of the wealthy to remote locations as chaos grips the infrastructure of the city. It’s less about people’s lungs collapsing than the higher-ups whose decisions smother them: indifferent mayors and governors who see slum clearage and mass displacement as opening markets and driving the almighty bottom line. Bodies pile up in the slums while snake oil salesmen on TV downplay the pandemic against other spoils of turbocapitalism: “50 or 60 bodies don’t count in a city of 13 million people.” “The evictions were necessary to protect the lives of the tenants.” “Hundreds more die in car accidents or because of violence.” Whether in public or private, such arguments have been made more recently as well. 

Abroad, Cazals’s most famous film remains Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976), about a group of city-slicker students who visited the pueblo of San Miguel Canoa and were massacred by villagers, convinced by a local priest that the students were in fact Communist revolutionaries. Canoa was restored and rereleased by the Criterion Collection in 2017; hopefully it is only a matter of time before a similar fate befalls El año de la peste, to say nothing of his many other titles, including Las Poquianchis, about a child prostitution ring, or El Apando, about prison inmates punished for scoring drugs. (I have a personal connection to Canoa: after blind-buying it on DVD at a Tower Records in the early 2000s, it became the first feature I programmed in Spectacle Theater, in Brooklyn, around this time ten years ago.) I spoke to Cazals from his home in Acapulco, shortly after he concluded teaching a remote class to Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica and Escuela de Cine. This interview took place via both email and teleconference, and Felipe’s comments have been edited and condensed for clarity. Special thanks to Herandy Goytia and interpreter Anthony Chassi. 

Filmmaker: To open with a broad, contextual question: Can you give a quick history of how El año de la peste came into being?

Cazals: In the late ’60s, I would attend Sunday get-togethers at the home of Emilio García Riera, historian emeritus of Mexican cinema, alongside budding filmmakers, writers et cetera. This is where I met Gabriel García Márquez and his wife [Mercedes Barcha], “the Gabos.” We spoke on many occasions about Italian neorealism, Rossellini, his stature in the history of world cinema. Gabo had come out of the Centro Experimentale de Cine in Rome, and I had studied at the L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris. Years later, Gabo published One Hundred Years of Solitude, which naturally kicked off a multitude of offers from filmmakers around the world. He was living la vie boheme, splitting his time between Cartagena, Madrid, Barcelona and Mexico City. 

In 1975, I completed the first cut of Los Poquianchis and had a private screening for friends, including Marquez. After everyone else left, he asked me: “Why don’t we make something together?” So El año de la peste started over breakfast at Gabo’s place in Mexico City. He was living in a pretty modest—but comfortable—home. In the library, Gabo showed me a copy of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which he endorsed with a smile: “There are no flying characters in this book!” 

I read it three times over before we met again. The proposition from Marquez could have been anything—an opera, a mural. It didn’t necessarily have to be a movie. We weren’t making much progress; it was clear that he wanted to bring in a new, younger writer to share screenwriting duties. We would find this person by publishing a call for proposals with one clause: “Summarize A Journal of the Plague Year in a single page.” The winner would receive a thousand Mexican pesos. This project brought together 29 young writers, all from different backgrounds—people who had made short films, journalists, novelists. Juan Arturo Brennan was the winner. His synopsis was remarkable.

The main theme of the project was factionalism within the authorities, in the face of a crisis that exceeded their capabilities, as well as the mechanisms of power to hide the truth. The plague went above their powers. So Gabo asked me: if there were a plague in Mexico City, how would people react on the ground? Showing that was really important to me. The plague is a fantasy, a device. The film is about the way the authorities react to the plague. 

The second question he asked me was: What would the president do if there actually were a plague? What would he say? Gabo’s opinion was that the president would deny the plague’s existence. So we proceeded from there. 

Filmmaker: The film has these chilling, breathtaking scenes of political and industrial leaders speaking bluntly to one another in the proverbial smoke filled rooms: “We cannot take responsibility for this plague.” They make comparisons with the number of people who die each week from gastrointestinal diseases, or pollution, to downplay the severity of the plague. To me it sounds like the behind the scenes version of Reaganite Trumpism—essentially, you’re on your own. This anticipates climate change as well.

Cazals: Our aim was to dismantle the spider web of power, and its ramifications within the macropolis. The protagonist Genoves, the plastic surgeon played by Alejandro Parodi, runs up against the obstacle of a far greater power. And this is not some vague, fantastical idea. It’s completely within the realm of possibility that somebody trying to warn people about a plague would be silenced.

Filmmaker: It is uncanny. In fact, what you’re describing happened in the early days of the 2020 outbreak, in my hometown of Seattle. A researcher named Helen Chu took it upon herself to start testing people for COVID-19 even though she was officially restricted—she was only allowed to test people for the flu. 

Cazals: The film shows reality, no? Gabo is known as the creator of magical realism, but there is no magic to this film. We inserted a plague to create a different reality, in order to reveal problems within society. 

What can change is the way authorities will react to a crisis of this nature. To hide the truth is a power move, essentially linking all forms of power together. The president must say whatever is convenient for private interests. The whole reason he is in power is to create a distorted reality. The president, the private interests—their form of reality becomes the official truth. To take the pandemic seriously would necessitate destroying preexisting forms of power.

Filmmaker: Here, everyone is still talking about “back to normal”—the joke being, that was never going to be an option.

Cazls: There’s a cutaway moment in the film where you see a toddler in the supermarket, holding a tube of toothpaste, which is where the plague originates from—which is to say, there is no stopping the plague. If it isn’t this one, another is coming. It never ends. It doesn’t matter what faith you follow. You can pray on top of the pyramids, but the pandemic is irreversible. 

Filmmaker: Tell me about the relationship between Canoa and El año de la peste.

Cazals: Both films look at something through a critical lens. Canoa critiques the people who encourage (and ultimately perpetrate) a crime, whereas Año critiques those who hide the truth from the public. In Canoa, one lie about the students visiting the pueblo results in their murder, the town breaking into chaos. In El año de la peste, there is no single lie, just the hiding of the truth, and that is what breaks the city into chaos. We proceed as if there is no one “truth” in society, because if such a truth were to get out, it would create a rupture in the order of things. And the people in power will not let that happen.

Filmmaker: Both films were made with state support, which is surprising—I mean, these are caustic attacks on institutions of power.

Cazals: In 1977 the head of the Banco Cinematografico was Rodolfo Landa, originally born Rodolfo Echeverría Álvarez—the brother of Mexico’s president at the time. He was a movie star in the “golden age” of Mexican cinema, and that was his approach. But a lot of filmmakers were not interested in those kinds of movies. The golden age was a lot like the studio system in Hollywood: a director was essentially an employee whose task was to finish the film—not somebody with artistic control of the script, certainly not the final cut. Obviously there were exceptions: Buñuel is an exception, Emilio “El Indio” Fernández is an exception, Roberto Gavaldón is an exception. I would cite those three as exceptions in a sea of maybe fifty directors.

So the Banco Cinematografico created a special fund for films that were more or less critical of things that were going on at the time. A lot of filmmakers would waive a portion of their salary in exchange for producer credit. This would allow for them to make the movie they actually wanted to make, without risk of being censored by Banco. If you put a portion of your salary towards the budget, you would have creative freedom. It ended up being a better deal for directors and for film workers, so these were called peliculas de panquetas, “package films”. 

Filmmaker: Did the production go smoothly?

Cazals: The opposite. At the beginning, El año de la peste was a coproduction between Banco, Corporación Nacional Cinematográfica (Conacine) and a few partners of mine. Conacine was legally required to employ a particular union, and this is where my troubles began. While I was shooting El año de la peste, some of the people working with me were trying to switch from one union to another. This all started in the second week of production. I had to convince the actors not to quit, which many of them wanted to do. Even with Garcia Marquez at my side, I could not convince the actors to proceed with the film. In the end I had to stop production and wait a few weeks. So, I cast new actors and began to reshoot the old material. 

But let me clarify: the actors didn’t have a problem with the movie itself, or the script—it was a labor issue between unions. To begin shooting a film, then stop in the middle of production and lose what you had—it’s very painful. And you lose the feeling from what you shot before. 

Filmmaker: Did any material from the first attempt end up in the finished product? Tell me more about the relationship between the aborted shoot and the completed one. Is the completed film some kind of “bastard”?

Cazals: Not at all. When it came time to suspend production, the signed agreements with the insurance company allowed them to keep all the technical equipment from the shoot, including what little material we had filmed on 35mm—negatives which, for the same reasons, were never developed. I never even got to see my own dailies. 

By the time we were able to resume production, we had a new cast, a new cinematographer and another studio, Estudios America. So the old footage had no creative or practical value. I suppose it went in the trash. But I had had the production and cast all set to my liking. Having to start all over again from zero, when you’re in the moment—it’s extremely hard. And by that point, Gabo and Brennan were preoccupied with other projects, so I had to fix these problems by myself. A new production meant reimagining the film. In the end, this process of starting over from scratch strengthened my sense of authorship: what you see is the film I wanted to make. With a new director of photography and a new leading man, it became a completely different creation.

Every film needs a hook for the viewer—what Hitchcock would call a “trap”—early in the story. But not every genre is the same. Writing this script took three years. Gabo was under fire for founding the organization HABEAS, which supported political prisoners during the military dictatorship in Argentina. By the time we had a fifth treatment, I was with him in Barcelona, walking the famous Ramblas de Barcelona. I asked him: “Gabo, when does this story take place?” Calmly he replied, “I leave that to you—I will no longer be here…”

Filmmaker: What kind of filmmaker did Felipe Cazals dream of becoming when he was young?

Cazals: I had no childhood. Going to movies was my childhood, essentially. I got a scholarship to study film in France; I went there with an understanding of Mexican cinema which was, Mexican films showed everything but the reality of society. So returning from IDHEC, my aim was to always have a critical lens on any film I made. I wanted to use those tools to say what I was thinking and seeing. It was never about being political for its own sake; what I wanted was to show people the real Mexico. 

Filmmaker: I was going to say—the films of yours I have seen do not take a traditional, Third Cinema approach. They are not about yanqui interference in Mexico or Latin America at large; rather, they are about Mexico.

Cazals: Yes. And Mexico has always been open to those exiled from other countries. I liken it to what Octavio Paz said: Mexico is like a pyramid with different levels, and each level has its own air quality. The country has its own problems—it’s an incomplete nation still working on itself. Military personnel are essentially free of responsibility in this equation, because they serve a name, someone higher up in power. The military has always had a perfectly curated image, centering on the fearless young cadet. There’s always some sort of nationalist agenda to the way the military is portrayed.  

Filmmaker: The subtitle of Canoa is “a shameful memory.” In El año de la peste one government official says to another: “You acted according to the book, but remember: our duty is to prevent things from happening the way described in books.” Via the onscreen typewriter credits, an excuse is given: the plague was a result of expired pharmaceuticals—the actual plague goes unacknowledged.

Cazals: The official story, the public story—it’s always written by those in power. In Latin America, actual history is usually spread through word of mouth. Abraham Lincoln is considered a pillar of your country’s morals, yet people continue to fly the Confederate flag. Or Maduro: look at the way he cites Bolivar as a pillar of Venezuela. It’s to forward his own message. The constant theme in Latin America is that true freedom is impossible because there will always be a chain of power, whether it be national or international. There will always be a chain of power that creates its own stories and perpetuates its own histories.

Filmmaker: How much of the corruption in the film is specific to Mexico in the 1970s? Versus the eternal, corruptible man…

Cazals: Well, what drives corruption? What makes it possible for corruption to continue? In my opinion, the answer is disinformation. Corruption is a tool to navigate around the truth. In the 1970s, television served that purpose in Mexico—reconstructing the truth however the government saw fit. This is a country of 70 million people, and television was how most of them received their information.

Filmmaker: Whose blood did you want to boil with El año de la peste? Who did you want to piss off?

Cazals: You got it right. Remember, we do not reelect presidents in Mexico—each has a six-year term. Over many of these terms, Grupo Televisa became an empire unto itself, a private-sector organ by which the state distorted the truth. Committed to hiding the truth from the citizenry, Televisa was the mouthpiece of private interests, and for the government. I don’t think they’ve ever owned up to it. And their few competitors, private sector or public, are cut with the same scissors. 

I should add that these huge conglomerates were indifferent towards the film. Gabo’s prestige actually worked against us, in a way. They were not able to assassinate his character, so it was better not to stir up controversy. 

Filmmaker: This is interesting too because radio plays a huge role in the plot of Canoa.

Cazals: Yes, radio and television were weaponized in those days, painting bourgeois college students as communist infiltrators—another example of those in power using media to control narratives. The Catholic Church also has a strong hand in this; they were aligned with the government at the time, and that’s why the priest in Canoa is such a key figure. He spreads this lie that that the students have come to Puebla to rape the girls and steal money from the villagers. It weaponized public sentiment against them before they even arrived in the town.

Filmmaker: Tell me more about the aftermath of El año de la peste. What kind of release did the film have? 

Cazals: Despite multiple premieres, I’m still convinced the film did not have the resonance that we expected upon release, because it was just too far-fetched. It lacked the magical realism people were eagerly expecting from Gabo—and the decidedly un-magical realism of my previous works, Canoa and El Apando especially, could not have the same impact. Nobody could realistically imagine a plague gripping the city like that. They knew announcing a plague would break the chain, creating a rupture, and that’s probably why it wasn’t too well received when it came out.

Although the public recognized the politicians and their methods of hiding the truth, the plague was considered a reach. Mexicans do not believe in things that do not happen often, but rather in historic events with a familiar flavor—stories worthy of the Mexican Revolution or the nationalization of oil. At this point, the country’s task was to self-examine after the uprisings of 1968 and the Tlatelolco Massacre. In 1979 and today, the public is aware the government lies. But the difference is, with the plague in the film, a reason why the reception probably wasn’t so positive is that they couldn’t wrap their heads around a plague happening and the government lying. 

Filmmaker: Everyone I sent the YouTube link to said the same thing: “This is exactly like COVID.” I assumed your phone was ringing off the hook, with people asking for your opinions on the Coronavirus pandemic.

Cazals: I do not think of myself as a guru. My personal description of Mexico is, people are indifferent towards long-term political struggles, yet grounded in day-to-day life.

During the pandemic the movie was broadcast on Channel 22 in Mexico, which is considered a kind of cultural channel—they show more arthouse films. I’m told it got one million viewers. But besides that, there hasn’t been much else—a DVD came out 15 or 20 years ago, which I would be happy to send you. 

Filmmaker: How’s the quality of the DVD?

Cazals: The DVD and the 35mm internegative are both in good condition.

Filmmaker: Where is the internegative currently?

Cazals: In the laboratory Estudios Churubusco, in Mexico City. The film still screens, but it happens more and more often in a university setting—I always do it for free. It’s shown almost 150 times at different colleges. 

Filmmaker: I first saw this film in 2017 when it played at the Museum of Modern Art. That was a beautiful print, I believe from the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía (IMCINE.)

Cazals: If you send me a formal proposal, I will do everything in my power to get you a good quality print of the film for exhibition purposes. As always, the problem with a lot of these places is the fees. There’s not much I can do about that. 

Filmmaker: In our emails ahead of this interview you said you had no optimism for the film to be restored or re-released. Why?

Cazals: At least within Mexico, it would be pointless, essentially. If an international firm or organization were to acquire the film, that would be the way to go. Restoring and rereleasing it internationally would give the film a bigger boost, more eyes, more prestige, I think, than if it were restored in Mexico alone. In addition to the publication of this interview.

Filmmaker: On that note… the film is, as I said, caustic. But you maintain a certain attention to the day-to-day lives of real people, victims of the plague—they are not just lemmings to serve the movie’s thesis. Is there a shred of humanism to be found in El año de la peste?

Cazals: I believe Mexico is on a positive trajectory right now, especially in regards to women’s rights. Just over the last few years I have seen things happen that will make for a different country. The role of women in Mexican society has remained the same for centuries, but I believe women have always been passed over—suffrage, reproductive rights, you name it. But I do believe real change will happen in the coming years. As a man of the 20th century, it was totally common to say things about women very recently you wouldn’t dare to say nowadays. 

Filmmaker: Do you feel things are changing for the better in Mexico?

Cazals: Things are definitely changing. Obrador was elected by a popular margin. There are always questions about legitimacy in elections but it seems his victory was legitimate. Critique is directed towards him in a different way, because his administrative style is different from what we’re used to. We’re talking about a country of almost 150 million people where 30, maybe 35% of its citizens do not have two meals a day. Restructuring things, changing the way governance operates—obviously this is threatening to those who have always been in power. 

Unlike other Latin American countries, Mexico’s democracy is governed by a constitution that is respected. That said: our proximity to capitalism has created deep systemic flaws and formalized corruption. Obviously this is the reason we do not have real, effective social justice. The film points out that fact, which is irrefutable. Elites do whatever they can to hide the complexity of these problems, to avoid uncontrollable chaos—an obligation of ambiguous nature. In practice, subordinates to the powerful have no choice but to conceal anything which might complicate or cast doubt on the official state response. The rules of the game conclude in a single phrase from the top man in the Republic, the President: “… En mi decenio no hay ni habrá peste!” (In my term there is, and there will be, no plague!)

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