“La Ley de Herodes,” – Corruption, Censorship and Mexican Cinema at the End of the Institutional Revolution.

By John Hannah

La Ley de Herodes (Herod’s Law) is Mexican black comedy set during what has been called the “moral cesspool” of the presidency of Miguel Aleman (1946-1952). The film’s irreverent though fictional lampooning of Mexico’s ruling party did not endear it to the government when it was completed in 1999-a year before the Mexican oligarchy faced its first real election-and the film almost didn’t see the light of day.

After the mayor of a small village-the fictional San Pedro de los Saguaros-is chased down and beheaded by his constituents, the ruling party is looking for someone to take the position, at least until the elections are over. Although they are probably not worried about an electoral defeat, the party bosses wish to avoid any embarrassment. They choose Juan Vargas (Damian Alcazar), a low level party hack whose job at the time of his selection seemed to be sleeping behind the desk at a junkyard and who they are convinced is a harmless idiot.

Vargas and his wife Gloria (Leticia Huijara) set off for San Pedro, excited about their new status and filled with a genuine desire to bring “modernidad” and “justicia social” to the town. Although such terms had become meaningless slogans to a revolutionary movement that had long since ceased being revolutionary, Vargas believes in them and is a proud member of the wonderfully oxymoronic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). That San Pedro might not be up to their expectation is first foreshadowed when Juan pulls over to ask direction and the man with whom he enquires speaks only an indigenous dialect and no Spanish. A little puzzled but undeterred Juan and Gloria proceed to a small collection of rundown adobe buildings and inquire again whether anyone knows how to get to San Pedro. They are told that they are in San Pedro.

Miguel Aleman’s Mexico
Despite being a one-party state, Mexico under the PRI shifted ideologically with the personalities and priorities of each president-with some paying more attention to the need for social reforms (most notably land reform and the breaking up of large haciendas) than others. Mexico’s first post-revolutionary president Venustiano Carranza secured his power by defeating counter-revolutionary forces on the battlefield but eventually letting them keep most of their land. His successor Alvaro Obregon took land reform somewhat more seriously even if his goal was to do just enough to achieve political stability in the countryside. Plutarco Elias Calles continued the policy of just enough land reform to achieve stability and applied it in such a way as to maintain and increase his political authority.

Then along came Lazaro Cardenas. Cardenas’ presidency 1934-1940 was notable for its shift to the left and its corresponding commitment to the revolution’s promises of social justice. Cardenas is not only said to have redistributed more land than all of his predecessors combined, he extended education opportunities throughout Mexico and expropriated foreign oil company operations. (These were the days of Rivera and Orozco’s proletariat as protagonist murals.) But by the time the 1940’s arrived Mexico’s business classes and the United States were tiring of this uniquely Mexican socialism.

With the year 1940 came the presidency of Avila Camacho and a shift away from Cardenas’ reforms. In fact Cardenas himself had begun to moderate towards the end of his term and some say Camacho’s time at the helm (1940-1946) can simply be seen as a continuation of that moderation within the party and not a real break with Cardenas. Regardless, Miguel Aleman was a different creature. His years in office (1946-1952) were characterized by a hostile relationship with organized labor and policies that favored big business-including foreign corporations. In addition to a general ideological shift to the right, a pervasiveness of corruption accelerated the abandonment of the social justice ideas of the revolution. Sometimes money was looted directly and schools or other projects went unbuilt or money from state government treasuries might find their way into Aleman’s own political coffers. Opportunities for kickbacks from contracts with corporations were also taken full advantage of. Some officials simply went directly onto the (hidden) payroll of American businessmen with whom they had formed relationships during World War II.

It is with all of this as a backdrop that Juan Vargas becomes the one-man, PRI-appointed government of San Pedro de Las Saguaros.

Modernidad y Justica Social
Juan is given a tour of the village of San Pedro by his secretary – a man named Pec who has been secretary to the past few mayors and witnessed their demises. He tells Juan that the population is very poor and that very few of the locals speak Spanish. There is no school and the treasury is empty (cleared out by the last mayor shortly before he was beheaded.)

While looking for help to bury a body he has found in the street, Juan encounters the film’s main characters. He meets the town’s doctor-who is also the leader of the local opposition PAN political party. The doctor tells him he must do his job and fix the town’s many problems beginning with the illegal bordello operating in town. He then goes to see the owner of the bordello, Doña Lupe (Isela Vega) and she immediately offers him a bribe to keep her business open, but no help with the corpse. Sincere in his commitment to good government, Juan refuses the bribe. Juan’s next visit is to the local priest who is openly asking a parishioner for money to forgive her sins. The priest tells him the dead body is a municipal matter and that he can be of no help. He then charges Juan 5 pesos for the brief rites he said over the deceased.

Juan returns to the state capital to ask the governor for money but is instead given a pistol and a book containing the laws of Mexico. He is also told that he should be guided by “Herod’s Law.” Spanish profanity that basically translates to “do unto others before they do unto you.”

Juan’s first act upon returning to San Pedro is to confront Doña Lupe with a host of statutes of which she is in violation. She runs him off but later comes to Juan’s office to try again to bribe him. At first he resists and tells her he only wants her to obey the law. She puts more and more money on the table and Juan Vargas gives in. Soon Juan is extorting money from merchants and sex from Doña Lupe’s girls.

Juan had earlier met a “gringo” (Alex Cox) on the road one day when his car broke down. The gringo looked under the hood, reconnected a wire and then asked Juan for hundreds of dollars. Juan told the gringo that he was the mayor of San Pedro and that he was good for the money, he then laughed it off as he drove away.

Later the gringo shows up in San Pedro wanting his money. He and Juan devise a scheme whereby they tell the people of the village that the gringo is an engineer and they are going to bring electricity to San Pedro. They even erect a pole that is supposed to be for the coming utilities and Juan begins to tax everyone and everything.

Doña Lupe grows tired of the abuse and has Juan beaten one day when he comes to the bordello. Enraged, Juan shoots and kills her. He also catches his wife in bed with the gringo (she will later run away with him after Juan becomes so abusive he keeps her chained to a pole.) After the PANista doctor complains to the PRI party leaders they come to San Pedro to investigate and realize how crazy Juan has become. He has made changes to the Mexican law book he was given, including one that would extend his term as mayor, and pasted his own face over that of President Aleman’s in the portrait in his office. A confrontation ensues and Juan shoots the party bosses. He then runs screaming into the street, firing his pistol into the air and proclaiming his ownership of the town. An angry, torch-wielding mob then chases Juan up the utility pole that was part of his scheme with the gringo.

The next time we see Juan Vargas he is giving a fiery speech to the Mexican Congress about the need to defend the revolution against all its enemies. The movie ends with a new mayor and his wife arriving in San Pedro and meeting Pec.

Censorship Controversy
In 1999, the PRI was in the final year of a more than 70-year stretch in power. Despite having had (from time to time) a vibrant and creative film industry since the 1930’s, the PRI had never been criticized explicitly on the big screen. A little caveat is needed here. Although several sources say that it was the first film to criticize the PRI by name, this isn’t precisely the case. In 1960 Julio Bracho made a film entitled Shadow of the Caudillo, which did specifically criticize the ruling party. However, given the fact that the government prevented its release for thirty years the point remains valid.

Although the film was made with partial government financing, when the time came the government censors attempted to limit its distribution to a handful of theaters in Mexico City and pulled it from an international film festival in Acapulco. With what might have been Mexico’s only honest election approaching in 2000, the PRI feared the impact of a movie that so mockingly laid bare its ubiquitous corruption and spurious democracy.

The history of censorship and propaganda in post-revolutionary Mexican cinema is an interesting one. Unlike the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Mexican government of the 1920’s didn’t make much of the propaganda potential offered by film. This is a little strange because the Obregon government was indeed commissioning artists to help create and promote a new sense of Mexican national identity, but they never included cinema in the effort. To what extent this is due to lack of appreciation or lack of funds is uncertain.

Things changed in the 1930’s as sound came to motion pictures. Revolutionary leaders were becoming part of the new entrepreneurial class and some of them were now film producers, so official censorship or propaganda wasn’t really necessary. Then Cardenas came to power in 1934 and soon the government had built its own modern studios and was making full-length feature films promoting the virtues of worker solidarity and demonizing capitalists. Strikers were the good guys and managers were the bad guys. It must be noted though that one of the first films dealt honestly with the violence of the revolution and demythologized many of its characters and events. The most notable interference of the government in the operations of its new studios was Cardenas’ insistence that the studio workers be organized into labor unions and that a certain percentage of films shown in Mexican theaters be Mexican made.

Although there was an official office of Control and Content set up at this time, the films produced by this new Mexican business class often reflected the disenchantment the bourgeois was beginning to feel toward the social justice efforts of Cardenas, so the political content of these government-produced films really didn’t toe any state or party line. This remained true throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s. When Miguel Aleman took the country to the right in the late 1940’s, Mexican Cinema was already there.

In the 1960’s the government began to exert a heavier hand as student protests became widespread (most notably the 1968 Mexico City Olympics massacre in the Plaza of the Three Cultures.) During the presidency of Luis Echeverria (1970-1976) the government became practically the only producer of movies. By the time writer and director Luis Estrada tried to bring La Ley de Herodes to the screen the official government censor was gone-but the government had put up a majority of the financing for the film and used this fact to pressure Estrada to delay its release until after the elections or change the ending so as not to show Juan Vargas being rewarded for his bad deeds.

In the end the government bowed to the pressure of the bad publicity generated by its heavy-handed tactics and the film was released nationwide. It went on to become a box office success and won various awards-including a tie at the Sundance Film Festival and the Ariel (Mexico’s Academy Award) for best picture.

The PRI lost the 2000 presidential election and ceded executive power.