Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Rodrigo Reyes, 499 is a new documentary exploring modern Mexican society with a unique lens. Poetic and gorgeous, the unorthodox narrative structure of the film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but Reyes is able to offer some interesting and insightful observations with his approach.
In the movie, 499 years after the Spanish conquest, a ghostly conquistador arrives on the shores of Mexico and wanders through the streets, learning what has become of the land he once colonized. Although the conquistador is obviously an actor, everything else in the film is nonfiction, a depiction of what is really happening in Mexico today.
The device that Reyes has invented for the movie is pretty ingenious, and it has some interesting effects on the narrative. For one, audiences will be kept entertained by the segments that incorporate a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy as the conquistador struggles to understand the New World (both in geographical and temporal sense).
However, perhaps more impressive are the parallels that Reyes is able to draw between the conquistador’s story and those of the people of Mexico. The film’s warning about how history has a tendency of repeating itself is universal and timely, and will undoubtedly connect with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
Throughout the movie, the conquistador interacts with citizens of varying ways of life, and while there is a bit of inherent theatricality tied to the premise, there is still a feeling of authenticity to what is being shown, for the most part. The portions of the film that specifically explore the Mexican lower class are particularly fascinating.
The movie is divided into different sections, each of them addressing a different aspect of Mexican society. Yet with a runtime under an hour and a half long, one can’t help but feel like Reyes may have bit off a bit more than he can chew. The film is consistently involving, but it likely would have been even more so had Reyes approached one or two of the topics with more depth.
On a technical level, the movie is undoubtedly excellent. The cinematography of the film won an award via remote judging at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it is completely understandable why. Reyes has an obvious admiration and respect for the country and people of Mexico, and that allows the viewer to become fully immersed in his movie.
499 is an unusual documentary, but more often than not, that works in its favor. Director Rodrigo Reyes took an ambitious swing, and while he doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park, he comes pretty close.
499 was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.