Film Review: Brimstone & Glory

An oneiric look at a Mexican tradition makes for an immersive experience and a slip of a documentary.
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For ten days every year, the residents of Tultepec, Mexico, celebrate the Patron Saint of Fireworks San Juan de Dios with a pyrotechnics festival. They build electrical towers that burst into flames and shower sparks upon the spectators. They construct and ignite massive papier-mâché bulls by whose sides they run down the crowded streets. Revelers shoot off firecrackers and fireworks as they dance through the flames. There is something at once pagan and spiritual about the spectacle; the result is as fine a line between the ecstasies of heaven and the horrors of hell as can perhaps exist outside of the human psyche. The tonally lush score by producer Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Dan Romer (also of Beasts acclaim, as well as Beasts of No Nation) contributes as much to Brimstone & Glory’s oneiric sensibility as its frankly aestheticized cinematography.

There isn’t much of a story here, though the doc does often return to the point-of-view and family of the young (ten-ish) Esau, or “Santi.” The men of Santi’s family help make the fireworks and construct the electrical towers they call “fire castles” for the festival. This dangerous job isn’t one the women of the family love a great deal; Santi’s grandmother recalls the death of her son and Santi’s uncle, which occurred when one of the flaming bulls overturned upon him. (When the credits roll, we see that the movie has been dedicated to several men who passed away in service of the festival.) The adults like to repeat about Santi that “gunpowder is in his blood,” but while Santi does seem adept at packing the powder and manipulating the wiring, he is understandably afraid of incurring injury on the job. But “in this family, this is what we do,” says his mother. “There’s not much else” for them in Tultepec.

This is an interesting conflict—in fact, several interesting conflicts—but traditional character conflict is not the film’s concern. Brimstone & Glory is an “experience,” a tone poem, not a narrative. We see the men constructing the fire castles, the residents creating their painted bulls, police readying for the celebration, paramedics treating those injured by the flames (squeamish among you, be warned), and revelers reveling, but with the exception of Santi, individual personalities are subsumed beneath visuals that are made to seem dreamlike through masterful tricks of lighting and slo-mo cinematography. A scene filmed with a head-cam worn by one of the workers as he climbs an unlit fire castle is an extraordinarily effective attempt to place the viewer in the subject’s shoes. If you can induce vertigo in someone sitting firmly in a cushioned seat bolted to the floor, you’re doing something impressive.

Then, too, there are some lovely and simple ideas underlying the film’s mesmeric images. In voiceover, Santi explains the legend of San Juan de Dios: He rescued several people from a burning building without receiving a single scar. For the residents of Tultepec, however, scars are just what they’re after. “It’s for people to feel something,” says Santi of the general eagerness to dance amid flames, to, quite literally, “take something home with them.” It’s a different way to think about “playing with fire,” where one is not flirting with danger but openly desiring it.

Brimstone & Glory clocks in at 67 minutes. On the one hand, this seems like the right amount of time for a work striving above all else to give an impression. On the other, such brevity makes the doc feel slight. It begs the question, too, of ROI: This is a film that ought to be seen on the big screen, that can perhaps not be appreciated unless it is viewed in a theatre, but how many people will be willing to spend nearly $20 for barely an hour’s experience, however immersive? Brimstone & Glory is deserving of an audience. But, in strange contrast to the average men and women searching for a moment of transcendence it depicts, this slip of a doc is something of a luxury item.

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