Written and directed by Peter Greenaway
English with some Spanish.  105 minutes

Any day you can see a film by Peter Greenaway is a good day.  Set in 1931, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a mad fantasy about Sergei Eisenstein’s effort to film the people and the spirit of Mexico.   The Mexican images are amazing, but the film plays heavily on a celebration of life and death.

It focuses upon Eisenstein’s initiation into gay sex and presents it graphically.  Originally released in the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, this film has been both honored and dishonored by countries, film festivals and critics.  It explodes on the screen. Greenaway manages to intensify the colors of Mexico to those of old postcards.   The Mexican Museum of Mummies, catacombs, paper skeletons, and a masked parade to celebrate the Day of the Dead are vividly shot.   The Mexican women are gorgeous and heavily made up with bright red lips.  An elegant bedroom with an enormous bed indicates the luxuries of life.   Greenaway uses montages to play off the drama of the relationship between Eisenstein and his Mexican guide Palomino Canedo with the drama of revolutionary and artistic life using portraits of Russian leaders and Mexican artists, as well as single frames from Eisenstein’s extraordinary films, including Battleship Potemkin and October. Eisenstein was a pioneer of film montages, although Abel Gance used split screens very dramatically in his 1927 classic film Napoleon.

It is a tribute to the legendary Eisenstein that one can instantly recognize single frames from his films. Today’s Russians did not approve the film and objected to the graphic sex, referred to by Greenaway as “close to pornography,” and the censors claimed they would have released the film if mention of Eisenstein’s homosexuality had been removed.

The story only hints at a real plot.  Eisenstein, as played by Finnish actor Elmer Beck is a juvenile, narcissistic figure, hardly believable as a serious filmmaker.  Beck plays the part boldly in all his nude glory.  He is struck by the vivid images of Mexico and the joy of his new-found love and seems unconscious of the Russian agents and the Mexican guards who surround him.  There is no hint of the poverty that fed the revolution.  Although mention is made of a fear that Stalin may be angry if Eisenstein is not well treated, the principal himself seems totally oblivious of the risks.

The movie indicates that Eisenstein had left a visit to Hollywood to shoot a film in Mexico funded by Communist sympathizers Upton Sinclair and his wife.   The visit of his sponsors to Mexico to check on Eisenstein’s progress is very comical.  The vividly colored and very exaggerated riding pants of the wife are a tribute to the costume designer.

If by any chance you are a film buff but do not know the works of Peter Greenaway, a British filmmaker now living in the Netherlands, check out his wonderful, multi-layered works such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, the Draughtsman’s Contract, Prospero’s Books, and many, many others.

Cheers for the Angelika Pop-Up theatre for its adventurous programming.  Located by Union Market in NE Washington, it is a plus for the city.


Clarissa Wittenberg

Clarissa Wittenberg

was a founder and editor of the Washington Review, a journal of arts and literature that documented cultural life in Washington for over 28 years. She is now the Creative Director of the Washington Film Institute.