Though 1925’s Battleship Potemkin remains his most prominent picture, anyone who has studied or paid much attention to the career of the eccentric Eisenstein, will be aware of a stint in Mexico, which dramatically shaped and informed all the director’s projects that followed. However what happened on this wild, 10 day trip is somewhat less publicised, but thankfully Greenaway is on hand to delve candidly into the experience, in the only way he knows how. Elmer Bäck plays the eponymous protagonist, who travels to Mexico in 1931, privately funded by American writer Upton Sinclair to embark on cinematic project. Hoping to feel inspired along the way, what Eisenstein hadn’t been expecting, was the sexual awakening that transpired, discovering his true self following a raucous few days with his assigned guide, Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), which opened his eyes and changed his outlook on life.
Arriving with nothing to his name but a white suit and fearless persona, the tremendously off-the-wall figure is brought to life in glorious fashion by Bäck, who plays the role almost like a silent movie star himself, with a slapstick, endearingly clumsy demeanour that can be likened to Harpo Marx – a similarity enhanced by the wild, curly hair. However Greenaway’s project falls carelessly into the realm of being too educational, and thus deviating away from entertainment. It feels like a contrived history lesson in parts, with the several facts and anecdotes, persistently illustrated with pictures on the screen to embellish the tales. It manages to keep the viewer engaged as the continuous use of imagery ensures you never feel bored, but that sadly doesn’t mean you don’t feel patronised, as this unsubtle approach leaves so little to the viewer’s imagination.
Thankfully the themes explored – predominantly that of sex and death – are compelling and boundless enough to keep you onside. Revelling primarily in the latter, the setting informs the narrative remarkably, with Mexico depicted as a spiritual place that takes a refreshingly unique outlook on death and the afterlife – a notion enhanced by the fact the Eisenstein’s venture into Mexico takes place in the build up to the annual Day of the Dead celebrations – while there’s also a chilling, indelible sequence in a museum exhibiting mummies. Though it all sounds somewhat dark, Greenaway never moves away from the playful, irreverent and overtly theatrical nature of the piece, managing to be unsettling and yet never once morbid.
While there may be dialogue within this feature, you can’t help but feel that Greenaway’s production is one that Eisenstein himself would have been proud to be the subject off, as this marks another picture for the former, that attempts to push the boundaries of cinema in a way that the Russian was so invested in achieving. Nonetheless, Greenaway’s work can be a struggle to get along with. If you’re a fan, then this will be right up your street. If not, this isn’t exactly one to alter your perceptions. But whatever your stance, if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that you won’t be forgetting this one in a hurry, whether you like it or not.