499 boasts legitimate emotional weight, but undercuts its power with too much heavy-handed symbolism.
Almost five centuries after the Spanish invasion of Mexico, a lone conquistador washes up on a beach in the country he once helped conquer. Undeterred, he embarks on the route that Cortez and his forces marched all those years ago, but when he tries to assert his dominance, his voice turns to chokes in his mouth, and he is rendered silent. From this initial surreal premise, director Rodrigo Reyes forces our mute conquistador on a journey of penance that takes him through the land that Cortez once ravaged, listening to the stories of those who still feel the cruelty of imperialism in the 21st century. Reyes’ ambitious project is a cinematic hybrid, merging narrative film with intimate documentary interviews, from a former soldier reflecting on his days as a glorified torturer to the emotional climax of the film, a harrowing interview with the mother of a murdered pre-teen girl, who never received justice for her daughter.
When the film opens with the conquistador washing ashore, evoking the controversial image of refugees on beaches that so many European audiences will be familiar with, it’s immediately clear that Reyes isn’t exactly interested in subtlety. Instead, he embraces the didacticism of his premise and wears the allegory on his sleeve, using the conquistador’s journey in the most obvious way he could, with Reyes quite literally forcing a representative of imperialism to sit down and listen to the consequences of his (its) actions. When paired with a handful of particularly overt shots, like the pleas of an activist being drowned out by the music of the nearby middle-class, or the conquistador standing proud atop a pile of trash, the narrative side of 499 strays too close to out-and-out moralizing for it to be entirely interesting.
However, just as the footsoldier was only a pawn in Cortez’ agenda, the ghostly conquistador is likewise an instrument, and is frankly at his best when serving as a vessel for the real meat of 499: the harrowing monologues of interviewees. The conquistador’s internal dialogue, the only voice he is permitted, is largely more on-the-nose narration in a film that would perhaps be served better by more silence, and in contrast to the naturalistic storytelling that forms the backbone of the film, the conquistador’s throughline suffers by comparison. The sheer emotional weight that the anecdotal segments carry and the dignity Reyes grants them cut straight to the bone, with the director here forgoing his more heavy-handed symbolism in favor of simpler, more elegant choices. The result is both effective and sometimes devastating, allowing fearful testimonies to stand on their own, leaving viewers undisturbed and undistracted by Reyes’ proclivity for sometimes beautiful, sometimes blatant tableaux.