Sunday, February 26, 2006

El Mariachi and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

I must admit that I have always enjoyed movies that exemplify the myth of redemptive violence. I grew up watching Westerns, especially those of John Wayne. I have also always felt conflicted over my enjoyment of these movies. I always felt there was something false about the way in which "good violence" always triumphed over "bad violence", and ensured by the end of the movie an almost eschatological peace for those who were saved by the lone gone man (yes usualy a man.) For the longest time I have avoided such movies, the exception being Robert Rodriguez's trilogy of films that began with his debut film "El Mariachi" and concluded with Once upon a time in Mexico. I find some of the same conflictedness I had with Westerns as a child but also now that I am an adult and have studied in theology and religious studies the myth of redemptive violence, I find in this trilogy of films an interesting take on the mythology of redemptive violence. The old themes are there the lone drifter, the gun that goes after and eliminates all the bad guys. Yet, what never happens in any of these three films is any sort of salvation through violence. There is no idyllic peace at the end, violence may defeat the corrupt but it does not bring salvation, in fact violence cannot save the ones the mariachi, turned gun slinger and executioner, loves.

The simple story of El Mariachi is of a innocent guitar player looking for work in a small town who is mistaken for a leader of a small time cartel who is at war with the leader of a more powerful cartel. The small time crook is know to carry a guitar case with weapons inside. So in this small town there are tow people both who dress in black and carry guitar cases. The Mariachi is mistaken for the crook and ends up in self defense killing the lackeys of the more powerful boss. As the Mariachi is shooting up the town and laying low from those who now think he is the Small time cartel boss he falls in love with the love interest of the cartel boss. Thus in the end the mariachi has crossed the cartel boss both in stealing his girl and in killing a large number of his lackeys. In the End the mariachi saves himself but not the girl and mortally wounds the cartel boss, but he is also seriously wounded. He escapes with his life and that is all, he saves no one but himself. The film begins where it ends, he is alone.

Desperado begins with the legend the mariachi has become as the lone enemy of the lawless cartels. In pursuit of revenge seeking the man at the top of the various Mexican crime outfits. Much of the picture plays itself in bars that look like saloons so it keeps that western allusion. In Desperado the mariachi is able to face off with the drug lord but the violence is uncontrollable, his love interest in this film, played by Selma Hayek, has her lively hood and her savings destroyed because of her involvement with him.

In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, we are shown how the violence follows the Mariachi, now simply known as "El" and how he is unable to save his wife (Selma Hayek) and child) They are merely flash backs that give the motivation for the characters continued vendetta. El is caught up in an attempted coup through the machinations of a lone CIA agent played by Johnny Depp. The movie ends with a greater amount of resolution as El and his two friends do save the president and thus help thwart the coup. But the movie still ends in the chaos of the violence. The victories are small, and El is alone possibly free now that he has killed those whom he believes to have been the source of his troubles from the first bit of mistaken identity, but it is only by now being able to shed that violent identity (which he has struggled with through out the three movies.) that some semblance of salvation is found.

I think I like these movies in part because they express the ambivalence I have always felt in watching old Westerns, they do not show in the end the myth of redemptive violence but question the degree to which violence can in fact redeem situations and bring about peace.