REVIEW: Brimstone & Glory [2017]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 67 minutes
    Release Date: November 22nd, 2017 (USA)
    Studio: Oscilloscope
    Director(s): Viktor Jakovleski

This one has gunpowder in his blood.

The concept of The National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico is insane. For two days the town responsible for 90% of all fireworks in the nation plans an elaborate celebration in honor of their patron saint San Juan de Dios wherein they literally run into fire. First is the Castillos del Fuego: high towers affixed with carousels to light and spin with patterns and artwork as tiny missiles fly through the air. Second is the Spanish running of the bulls-inspired Pamplonada where massive cartonería sculptures are crafted from wood and reeds to be painted housing units for fireworks that push through crowds of jumping participants looking to be “touched” by their saint’s hand. Thousands gather to enjoy the adrenaline rush, each risking injuries to celebrate their community’s art.

Tultepec is unsurprisingly marred by tragic accidents since citizens are working with volatile explosives year-round. And just like in December 2016 when an explosion killed 42 people in the San Pablito Market, those are generally the only moments anyone outside the city turns any attention their direction. So having German director Viktor Jakovleski travel across the Atlantic to experience the beauty of their craftsmanship rather than the dark cloud above it proved very special for them. Finally someone was coming in to give them their due and showcase the life and vitality of their work. Shot over two years, Brimstone & Glory would succeed in placing us directly in the action with handheld cameras operated by local cinematographers and super slow motion that captured the mesmerizing, violent flames.

The film itself is a sensory experience that takes us through the preparations of explosives and architecture. Jakovleski is keen to relinquish his title of director and truly speak about the project as a collaboration of people who understand what it is to be so close to destruction and acknowledge its unparalleled majesty. His friend and fellow filmmaker Benh Zeitlin came aboard as camera operator, producer, and composer of a score that’s as much a character within the whole as those locals they decide to follow around. The latter group is highlighted by a young boy named Esau Santiago “Santi” Sánchez Velázquez who fears the danger of what happens during the festival despite his father’s hopes to teach him how to make fireworks and continue the family tradition.

Along with him are showcases of Artsumex creative director Amauri Sanabria Urbán and castillos builder Juan Alberto “Chincolas” Cervantes Aduna. The former is an innovator who designs and manufactures these giant bulls with his brothers and friends, putting LED lights inside them to augment his elaborate stylistic flourishes of form. The latter is a fearless master technician resigned to his precarious fate who takes charge when lightning strikes a tower and wears a GoPro camera on his head when climbing to unsafe heights. By having these two characters deeply entrenched in their respective days at the festival, Jakovleski is able to document the behind the scenes drama and expertise before letting Santi take us through the magic of their art in action. Everything is onscreen.

It doesn’t all go perfectly, though, with one bull in flames and a triage tent ready to service the hundreds of injuries they know will occur. What’s so crazy about these moments is how they’re effortlessly taken in stride. People bandage themselves up and walk to the tent. A man sees a fire burning outside a home and very nonchalantly carries a bucket of water to calmly splash and prevent its spread. And even young Santi gets a piece of shrapnel caught in eye, lets a medic flush it out with water, and then continues dancing amongst the sparks. We see teens running straight for an explosion with smiles on their faces and hands covering eyes, basking in the chaos and the energized feeling it instills within them.

I wouldn’t be caught dead at an event like this, but I’m glad to have witnessed it from afar. Santi, Amauri, and Chincolas don’t necessarily provide stories beyond their archetypes within the community and the festival, but you don’t really need them to since this project is about the town rather than a handful of people within. It’s about showing the care and love put into their work and the constant state of uncertainty looming above every single movement. They build these fireworks with their hands—or wrists if a hand has already been lost. They embrace the culture they have created regardless of the inevitable pain it provides in kind. Tultepec exists within this fire so it’s appropriate that they’d willingly place their lives in its control.

Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.

courtesy of Oscilloscope

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