Eisenstein in Guanajuato (4 stars)

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Uncompromising biopic of the great Soviet filmmaker from Peter Greenaway

In late 1930 lionised revolutionary Soviet filmmaker Sergei M Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), then 32, went to Mexico with backing from socialist writer Upton Sinclair, for what was supposed to be an artistic but quickie travelogue. Once in Mexico, Eisenstein began to conceive an epic in six parts to cover a thousand years of Mexican history – an anthology recounting the Aztec and Mayan empires, the Spanish Conquest, the Colonial period and the Revolution, with no restraints on his creative integrity.

He shot 250-miles of what was to be his unrealised epic Que Viva Mexico! – uncompleted because he was forced out of Mexico and the US, returned to Stalinist Russia under a cloud, and was never allowed to edit his film. A passionate, life-long devotee of Eisenstein’s, British auteur Peter Greenaway pays him delirious homage with a zany, exuberant, meticulously composed and maniacal fantasia comprising ‘10 days that shook Eisenstein’, a kaleidoscope of experiences that changed his life and impacted his later work.

We watch as Eisenstein (a fearless performance from Finnish actor Elmer Bäck) is shadowed by comedy Russian agents, banditos, cartoonishly crass American financiers, and sneering blackmailers aware of Eisenstein’s collection of blasphemous and homoerotic pornography. Our philosopher-clown hero experiences sensory and emotional overload in this vibrant, alien culture – vomiting and shitting (graphically) from overindulgence, and surrendering to his first (very explicit) sexual experience with his debonair guide Palomino (Luis Alberti). All the while he chatters wittily about his career, travels, Hollywood, politics, religion, sex and death. The last two loom large in a dizzyingly edited, beautifully shot (by Dutch cinematographer Reinier van Brummelen) feast of visuals: black-and-white stills and clips of Eisenstein’s landmark montage mingle with rapturous colour in richly detailed sets, augmented craftily with technical effects and animations.

It’s bursting with ideas and allusions for cinephiles from Greenaway – his ambition, ardour and mischievous mix of styles undiminished and uncompromising well into his seventies. It’s art with a capital A, and also a lot of fun.

Selected release from Fri 15 Apr.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • Netherlands / Belgium / Finland / Mexico / France
  • 1h 43min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Peter Greenaway
  • Cast: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti, Maya Zapata
  • UK release: 15 April 2016

Sergei Eisenstein (Bäck) goes to Mexico to shoot a quickie travelogue, which turns into a planned epic about 1000 years of Mexican history. Zany, exuberant meticulously composed and maniacal fantasia, with Greenaway's usual profusion of ideas and allusions. Art with a capital A, and a lot of fun..