• Film

The Real Cinco de Mayo, by Mexican Filmmaker Rafa Lara

At 49 years old and with a career that encompasses advertising television projects, film, and television, Rafa Lara, who has been behind the camera for 30 years, considers himself first and foremost a filmmaker. His film Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla (The Battle) (2013), with its spectacular scenes, has become a point of reference in terms of what Mexican cinema can achieve in the epic genre.

Lara recently took over the series project, Pancho Villa: El Centauro del Norte (The Centaur of the North), which recounts another fundamental episode in the history of how Mexico was forged, by following the journey of the leader of the Mexican revolution. The production premieres this 2022 on the streamer chain Star+.

The year will also see the premiere of the third season of De Brutas Nada (Not At All Dumb) (Amazon Prime), where Lara explores his role as showrunner.

The Mexican director can boast of being a filmmaker who comfortably shuffles between genres, from romantic comedies Labios Rojos (Red Lips) (2011) to horror films El Quinto mandamiento (The Fifth Commandment) (2011), and from his own version of the life of Jesus de Nazareth (Jesus of Nazareth) (2019) filmed in Almería, Spain, to a film about guerrillas La Milagrosa (The Miraculous) (2008), filmed in Colombia.

The following are excerpts from our phone interview.



How did the film project, Cinco de Mayo, in which you invested three years of your life, fall into your hands?

Precisely at the beginning of 2011, I was fortunate that the governor of Puebla, Rafael Moreno Valle, reached out to me directly. He had several ideas to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, which was commemorated in 2012, including a film that would not necessarily just portray the confrontation between the Mexican and French armies.

Moreno Valle and his team presented me with a proposal on how to celebrate May 5th on film. I proposed to them that we should definitely focus on filming the battle, with some fictional elements, to make a universal film that would have values ​​on its own. That ultimately, it was a film from Mexico to the world. Not just a movie about Mexicans for Mexicans. The idea was to tell a human story of a country that was being invaded by a great power but managed to defeat them. I consider it a completely personal film, not commissioned. Cinco de Mayo not only tells the story of well-known heroes but also of ordinary heroes, many of them unknown. Not only men but also women, facing the most powerful army in the world.

What were the most important challenges in making Cinco de Mayo?

They were many but without a doubt, the challenge was to achieve the size of the film that I had in mind. With a budget of $9 million, it became the most expensive film in the history of Mexico, made with national money. But even then, I saw that the things we wanted to have with that money was not enough. It seemed impossible because the battle of May 5 is told in an hour of screen time, plus other action scenes, adding the challenges of natural locations, costumes, and makeup. It was not going to be an easy task. Our budget had to allow for this and we started working with the producers. With a lot of effort, my team managed to make Cinco de Mayo look much more spectacular than what a Hollywood producer could do with that money.

May 5th is celebrated more in the United States than in Mexico.  How do you, as a Mexican, feel about this?

I feel very pleased to have contributed a grain of sand to understand why in the United States the date is celebrated more than even in Mexico. Those who see the film will find its historical value, which, without claiming it to be a history class, has a very strong research work. Even the script has elements that many people did not know. For example, to give Cinco de Mayo international relevance, my idea was to give weight to the great powers of history as protagonists: the United States, England, Spain, and France. Precisely in those investigations, we realized that for many historians, that battle of May 5th did change the history of the American Union and therefore, of the entire world. Because if the Mexicans had not stopped the French in 1862, most likely the French army could have joined the southern states of the United States that were in the middle of a civil war against those of the north, led by Abraham Lincoln, which was in favor of abolishing slavery.

Although there is an element of speculation in what I am raising, it is still a cause for celebration for the United States that the Mexicans have won this crucial battle. Something that is considered a kind of involuntary help to the army of the North of the American Union.

Now you are involved in the upcoming series on the life of Pancho Villa. What did you learn from doing Cinco de Mayo that helped you direct El Centauro del Norte?

Although it happens 50 years after the events of May 5, when the revolution was triggered in Mexico, we are talking about both events being key to the formation of the country. In both productions, I sought to study the strategies of the generals or warlords in command. I didn’t want to fall into narrating on-screen something very basic like the conflict between good guys against bad guys, with actors who act as winners, others as losers, and with the camera placements, where it felt more like a television show than a movie. I really like the idea that the camera is a time machine, transporting the viewer to the very heart of the battles.



After the premiere of Cinco de Mayo, what were the reactions from educational, cultural, or government institutions?

Without a doubt, Cinco de Mayo is one of the films that has given me the most satisfaction. Practically since the film was made – except for the two years of the pandemic – I usually save the days around the date of the battle of Puebla in my agenda because I know that they will invite me to different places to present and talk about the movie. It premiered at many film festivals, even winning awards. The response over the years is very favorable.

Cinco de Mayo has become a filmic document in its own right. I have been invited by universities in Europe, Asia, and the United States to speak about the film that stands up in its historical solidity.

Why do you think, as someone who has directed romantic comedies on the big screen and television, that this genre is heavily produced in Latin America?

I understand that comedy in general works very well with the Latin American audience because first of all, we have that natural playfulness. The Latin blood that makes us less rigid or cold in our ways of relating. I also think that it has to do with socio-economic conditions; on the one hand, we know that our countries are often hit by economic crises or by violence and organized crime. The public, for better or for worse, tries to find light stories that take them away from these daily concerns.

On the production level, comedies have this quality of being mostly contemporary, with few shooting locations, a handful of characters, and few economic challenges to make them. That makes them more commercially viable. Even so, I believe that there are different tones in this genre and sizes. The challenge is to be able to transcend, to go beyond the Latin market, so the stories must be more universal and with better production values, with professional actors and not merely stars, to make these films more available.


Translation by Mario Amaya