The odyssey to climb the volcano Popocatepetl in 1519 by three members of the army that would eventually conquer the Aztec empire is depicted through the vision of the young Mexican filmmakers Ruben Imaz and Yulene Olaizola in Epitaph, another film that was part of the Main Competition Programme in the Black Nights Film Festival that took place in Tallinn from November 13 to 29.
The film, based on real-life events, follows explorer Diego de Ordaz and two other soldiers, who were on a mission recommended by Hernan Cortes to find an alternative route to the capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan. The route in question was quite a challenge: climbing the Popocatepetl, a volcano of 5500 metres, treacherous and unforgiving to those who showed hesitation.
And hesitate is not something that Diego de Ordaz does. The leader of the group doesn’t show an ounce of weakness, he is sure that reaching the top of the mountain for him to claim it for the king of Spain is what God wants, no matter how hard the journey appears to be. The other two members of the group, however, do not seem as determined and one of them begins to show signs of exhaustion the moment they start climbing.
Filming took place on another big volcano in Mexico, as the Popocatepetl was throwing ash at the time when the movie was being made; yet, the directors managed to make a visually stunning movie with a very small budget. Ocre and grey tones dominate the first scenes while it gradually turns almost into a black and white movie given the high contrast of the dark stone of the mountain and the snow that covers it. The mountain is so high that the clouds are seen from above in beautiful shots; worth mentioning is a shot of a slowly revolving cloud that had gotten trapped between two cliffs as it is not only a gorgeous view, but it also allows the audience to put this adventure into perspective. This is an epic film with only three characters, armed with a blanket, a pot, a sword and their armatures with the iconic helmets, who faced a trip on harsh terrains with little more than themselves, their struggle with the unknown and their determination to make it.
The small budget, however, is unfortunately noticeable in some aspects like the costumes: the vests and boots of the characters look suspiciously modern. In addition, this is the first movie for the actor portraying Diego de Ordaz and his performance feels a little stiff at times, but this might not be noticeable to most of the audience as the dialogues are in an older form of Spanish that nowadays sounds strange even to Spanish-speaking people.
The subject of the film might be somewhat controversial. Even though it only deals with it indirectly, the Spanish conquest of Mexico is indeed a complex matter with so many consequences and points of view that it is very hard to reach a consensus over how to portray the people who participated in it. As the renowned Mexican writer Alvaro Enrigue says, “we are a country with a name made of nostalgia and guilt”, a statement that seems to be proven by the name of the movie, Epitaph. As said by filmmakers themselves, this journey symbolises an epitaph: cultures conquer others, but in the end humanity is defeated.