Film Review: The Mexican Suitcase

The incredible 2007 discovery of thousands of negatives of the Spanish Civil War (including many by Robert Capa) provides a window into that war’s ongoing trauma in this exquisite, if sometimes repetitive, documentary.

It’s one of those great stories that crop up in the art world only every so often and which thrill only a small subset of dedicated scholars, though The Mexican Suitcase makes as good a case as possible that it should have been treated as one of the major finds of the early 21st century. In 2007, an American filmmaker living in Mexico came by happenstance into possession of three thin, delicate and cracking old suitcases. Inside, however, were about 4,500 negatives that had been shot during the Spanish Civil War by a galvanic trio of war photographers: David “Chim” Seymour, Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. One expert interviewee compares the discovery to finding some lost notebooks of Picasso’s.

Trisha Ziff’s film could have been just about the recovery of these items and their placement at the International Center for Photography in New York, a museum and artistic resource that was actually established by Capa’s brother Cornell partially for the purpose of preserving Robert’s work. As only that, The Mexican Suitcase would have been superb. The images that Ziff shows in between her talking-head interviews are exactly what we think of when we think Robert Capa: sharp black-and-white intensity, harrowing violence, the cold reality of conflict and human drama framed with an aesthetic precision that’s almost uncanny.

Ziff is canny about her subjects, deploying the myth of Capa to great effect but also deflating it in order to study the work of Chim and Capa’s wife Taro, whose much lesser-known work is just as impressive as Capa’s and—as wasn’t really known until the suitcases were found—had also previously been frequently attributed to Capa by mistake. Combined with Claudio Rocha’s bright and luminescent cinematography and the lilting Michael Nyman piano score, this smart visual essay on Capa, et al.’s legacy as essentially the first modern war photojournalists would have made for a stirring and numinous piece of work.

But by casting a wider net into the subject of the Spanish Civil War (possibly where John Sayles, credited here as creative advisor, was involved), Ziff broadens the scope of her work. The Mexican Suitcase isn’t just a piece about a fascinating wrinkle in the history of photography and journalism, it’s also a meditation on the meanings and ramifications of the Spanish Civil War. Ziff focuses in particular on the many thousands of defeated Republicans who at war’s end fled Franco’s advancing forces (knowing full well that they would not have mercy in mind) and ended up coming by the boatload to Veracruz, Mexico. Through interviews with veterans themselves and their descendents, she shows how relatively unexamined the war’s trauma remains in Spain and how unacknowledged it is that Mexico offered itself as a safe harbor to these anti-fascist heroes.

Unfortunately, it’s in the later part that Ziff’s film gets into trouble. She’s on firmer ground with the photography, whose gut-punch power is more than enough subject for any film. But with the Spanish Civil War, she’s on weaker ground, limiting her film too much to the memories of these exiles and not delving enough into the causes and traumas of the conflict itself. As a result, the last quarter of the film is frequently repetitive, feeling like too much tissue spread over too wide a frame. But for even the most casual students of photography, journalism and history, this beautiful and soulful film is nevertheless required viewing.