Canoa is based on an actual event. In 1968, in San Miguel de Canoa, a rural Mexican village, the local Catholic priest, who pretty much controlled the place, incited his parishioners into a murderous frenzy against innocent visitors, whom they mistook for Communist agitators at a time of widespread students protests. The priest insisted that the invaders’ mission was to close the church. The young men, all of whom worked at an urban university, were in fact on a hiking excursion to a volcano. Heavy rains, however, brought them into the village where things erupted.
Canoa is a study, then, of the anti-Communist hysteria in whose grip some of the world was held at the time, largely incited by the United States and the Roman Catholic Church. The film’s focus, however, is on Mexico, its institutions and cultural habits. Seeking to unravel a mesh of convolutions, it has no interest in enforcing dogma or in scoring geopolitical points. The film is framed as a news investigation correlative to its documentary impulse. Felipe Cazals, who directed from Tomás Pérez Turrent’s script, is a former documentarian.
This is not a paper-thin “message movie.” Rather, it is a rigorous attempt at deconstruction; it shows how a range of elements—social, religious, political—came together to produce the monstrous result. Felipe Cazals interrupts chronology for pertinent juxtapositions and asides, and prods the viewer into an analytical mode by the application of considerable wit. The terrible power of the communal event is enhanced by this approach, partly because of Cazals’s ability to direct crowds—in this case, a crowd that turns into a thunderous mob. Apparently Cazals can distance us or bring us up close to the action at will, shifting purpose even in consecutive shots. Canoa is, among other things, a dazzling tour-de-force.
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