Political Film Society - Newsletter #172 - July 1, 2003

July 1, 2003


Directed by Luis Estrada, Herod's Law (La Ley de Herodes) is a satirical tale that takes place (and was filmed) in the desert town of San Pedro de los Saguaros, México, where angry non-Spanish-speaking Indian residents, according to the fable, lynched three corrupt mayors from 1944 to 1949. Accordingly, López (played by Pedro Armendárez, Jr.), a provincial official in the ruling political party appoints junkyard custodian Juan Vargas (played by Damián Alcázar), a naïve party member, to serve as mayor, hoping that he will put the lid on the problems of the one hundred or so villagers so that there will be no impediment to his ambition to be appointed the next governor of the state (presumably Sonora, in view of the omnipresent giant Saguaro cactus). In the beginning, Mayor Vargas is eager to transform the village, following the slogan of his party--modernization and social justice. Lacking a budget to improve the village, his idealistic words prove empty, and Dr. Morales (played by Eduardo López Rojas) of the opposition party threatens to defeat him in the next election if he fails to shut down the local brothel, operated by Doña Lupe (played by Isela Vega). Even the village priest (played by Guillermo Gil) tries to shake him down, so he returns to his patron, López, for advice. The advice is to follow "Herod's Law," namely, "Fuck or be fucked!" That is, López tells Vargas to extort taxes, to bribe lawbreakers (armed with a book containing the laws of México), and to enforce his authority with a gun. When Vargas returns to the small village, he arranges a banquet for the local leaders; at the end of the meal, he announces disingenuously that he will bring electricity to San Pedro de los Saguaros, having hired a gringo (played by Alex Cox), a supposed American engineer. Soon, he is collecting a lot of money in bribes and sleeping with the women in the local brothel.

When he tries to collect an excessive amount of money from the townspeople, in cash or in kind, Dr. Morales goes to see López to complain. While Dr. Morales is away, Vargas tries to extort so much money from Doña Lupe that she recruits a bodyguard, who roughs up Vargas; later that night, Vargas returns to shoot both of them in cold blood. After the bodies are discovered, Vargas coerces townspeople into testifying that Dr. Morales hired the town drunk to kill Doña Lupe and her bodyguard. However, Vargas orders Dr. Morales to leave town, so he returns to López to report that the town is in chaos. López, who tried to shoot his rival for the governorship of the state, then goes to the town. However, the ruling party is evidently delighted when Vargas kills him shortly after his arrival. In the epilog, Vargas is addressing the Congress in México City as a delegate. A standing ovation greets his proposal for the party to do what he proposed for himself in San Pedro de los Saguaros--to stay in power indefinitely. When Herod's Law tried to debut in México in 1999, the government tried to stop the film from being shows in cinemas, believing that the story vilified the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Although the film could be viewed as a mere comical satire, voters clearly got the hint, and Vicente Fox of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional was elected president of México in the year 2000, thereby ending seventy-one years of PRI rule. More profoundly, there is perhaps a serendipitous insight: Politicians who are less than erudite are more likely to use crude methods to cling to power, a theory that could also be tested north of the Río Grande. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Herod's Law for an award as this year's best film promoting democracy as well as best film exposé of 2003. MH

The Legend of Suriyothai
chronicles Thailand's equivalent of Queen Elizabeth, a contemporary. Manito depicts the life of Dominicans in New York City. Whale Rider shows how a female became Maori chief.