Brimstone & Glory (2017) Film Review

Directed by: Viktor Jakovleski
Produced by: Dan Janvey, Elizabeth Lodge Stepp, Kellen Quinn, Affonso Gonçalves, Benh Zeitlin, Casey Coleman, Antonio “Tonitzin” Gomez, Viktor Jakovleski, Erdem Karaham
Executive Produced by: Lisa Kleiner Chanoff, Philipp Engelhorn, Caroline Kaplan, Michael Raisler
Edited by: Affonso Gonçalves
Cinematography by: Tobias von dem Borne
Supervising Sound Editor: Damian Volpe, MPSE
Music by: Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin
Oscilloscope Laboratories and Cinereach Present a Court 13 and Department of Motion Pictures Production

“Maybe a reason why all the doors are closed
So you could open one that leads you to the perfect road
Like a lightning bolt, your heart will glow
And when it’s time, you’ll know.”

*****

In Viktor Jakovleski’s new documentary, Brimstone & Glory, a young boy named Santi is nearly blinded by shrapnel from handmade fireworks. “Gunpowder is in your blood,” he’s told, though Santi is terrified when the kaleidoscopic lights and puncturing sounds get too close for comfort.

Just his luck, then, to be a citizen of Tultepec, Mexico, where a dangerous pyrotechnics festival draws thousands of people every year. Santi is our anchor in Jakovleski’s mercifully short feature (his astoundingly fulfilled directorial debut), and through his concern, we learn early that the title is wrought with a dark irony. For while the spectacle of dozens of fireworks being assembled, moved, and ignited is wondrous to behold, such glory comes with a price. To have gunpowder in your blood is to have a death sentence over your head before you are born.

As Santi and his family, including his bereft mother and firework-making father, prepare for the festival, Jakovleski and his crew – including the gifted cinematographer Tobias von dem Borne and several camera operators – glide behind with a panting eagerness. Artisans flock to Tultepec for the event, and von dem Borne captures their anticipation, the camera borne upon the twin trails of danger and pleasure they leave in their wakes.

Some of these artists stand out long after the cameras stop rolling. Artsumex, the “pyrotechnic-bull parade crew,” creates a giant neon creature for the “pamplonada”, a running of (artificial) bulls to honor the saints. Their massive project inspires local kids to help push the machine – a multimedia sculpture requiring electronics, papier-mâché, and of course, fireworks – despite the possibility of its bursting into flames. Should that happen, it would be a disgrace to San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of fireworks.

It is only when the filmmakers take their cameras inside the bulls (a major honor to which Santi balks out of fear) that the reality of extraordinary labor comes into view. I was first amused, and then enthralled, by the attention paid to the Tultepec workers whose lives are threatened in the making of this festival.

From firefighters to paramedics to government officials, tourists and artists and their elderly relatives, no element of the local culture is untouched by the week-long festivities, for better or worse. Even innocent bystanders, as we see in a disturbingly graphic moment, have their fates altered.

This is, to my mind, the essential revelation in a film that largely eschews big reveals. Rather than lean on a cosmetically-sound 3-act structure, Brimstone & Glory is a place portrait, a snapshot in film-time, where events play out on their own cosmic time-frames. As such, it has been compared, with some clumsiness, to Koyaanisqatsi and the “calls ‘em as I sees ‘em”-style Les Blank documentaries about site-specific events (Always for Pleasure, Thailand Moment.)

These comparisons, I suspect, are due more to a desperate human need to classify – or, perhaps, to sell the unsellable – than to real resemblances between the films. While Jakovleski’s and editor Affonso Gonçalves’s willingness to abandon standard narratives does put them in a shared lineage with Godfrey Reggio and Blank, their work together is an altogether different cinema that entwines several supposedly non-commercial genres: light art, avant-garde cinema, vérité.

Consider the most entrancing images in the film: GoPro footage of amateur construction workers climbing giant wooden towers without safety gear; a boy running sparklers through black alleys; slow-motion shots of exploding fireworks (Jakovleski shot the high-speed photography) whose purpose is simply to be beautiful. There is nothing wrong with that priority, though it is most often the domain of a fresh and stubborn filmmaker; in fact, had I seen the film with no supplementary information, however, I might have deemed it insurmountable for many theatrical audiences.

But I am a critic, not a distributor or a marketing specialist, and I am happy in this case to be proven wrong. After a highly successful festival run, Oscilloscope Laboratories has placed the film in rolling screenings around the country. This is lucky: Brimstone & Glory begs to be seen in a theater.

Among other accomplishments, Tobias von dem Borne’s digital cinematography is resoundingly beautiful, every frame sparkling with man-made asteroids and metallurgical heat. The energy of his camera is carried from moment to moment by the jones of Dan Romer (an acquaintance of mine) and Benh Zeitlin’s score. The pulsing, percussive rhythms of the soundtrack adjust your heartbeat to fit their pace.

How closely the composers worked with Gonçalves is a mystery, but such impeccable harmony between craftsmen is usually reserved for collaborators at the highest levels of production: John Williams with Steven Spielberg, or Hans Zimmer with Christopher Nolan and Lee Smith.

Romer’s and Zeitlin’s work here recovers the creative brilliance of their previous scores for Mediterranea and the big kahuna of recent American independent cinema, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Not coincidentally, both projects also share producers from Court 13 and the Department of Motion Pictures with this film.

Already having a banner year with their Sundance success, Patti Cake$, Court 13 here reinforces its reputation as one of the most adventurous and open-minded working collectives in the country.

So substantial is their track record that I have heard whispers of increasing passion advocating for this documentary to be nominated for the Academy Award for nonfiction features in 2018.

Allow me to join the chorus.

Brimstone & Glory opens Nov. 22 in New York.

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