J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Future Imperfect: The Year of the Plague

The doctor considers it a Crichton-esque super-virus. His musician-lover sees it more as the pent-up release of the masses’ accumulated physical and spiritual pestilence. Either way, it is a stretch to call this outbreak drama science fiction. Indeed, the impulse to sweep the mounting crisis under the rug is acutely human, in the worst way. The cover-up will be just as deadly as the disease in Felipe Cazals’ The Year of the Plague, which screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

It is odd Year of the Plague is not more frequently screened, because the screenplay was co-written by Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez (with José Agustín and Juan Arturo Brennan). Supposedly, it is based on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, but it bears more of a likeness to Camus’s The Plague. Dr. Genovés is a senior attending physician at a leading Mexican university hospitality, who has no trouble recognizing the early stages of a plague from the fifty-some suspicious cases he has seen so far. However, his superiors and the government easily bury the plague victims amid the thousands of other people who died during the same time period due to more pedestrian urban pathologies. As a consolation, Genovés will commence an affair with a much younger and prettier aspiring musician.

Literally mountains of corpses start to pile up, but they know how to take care of that down there. When a Norwegian cabinet minister also succumbs to the plague, the government will recklessly and unethically send his body home with a deceptive congestive heart failure diagnosis and no environmental safeguards. Of course, he is the exception. Most of the plague’s victims simply don’t count for much.

Peste is an ultra-1970s-looking film, presented in a pseudo-documentary style, but with spare room here and there for dramatic character development. As a result, it is hard to forge an emotional connection with the film, even though it features several musical interludes. Yet, its retro-ness is also one of its greatest appeals. Frankly, watching polyester-wearing bureaucrats villainously scheme amid groovy office décor is always a cool nostalgia trip.

The docudrama approach necessarily hems in the cast, but Alejandro Parodi (bearing a vague resemblance to Mike “Touch” Connors) has the sort of presence you would want from your viral outbreak doctor. However, for Cazals and García Márquez, the real stars of the film are those dump trucks and mass graves overflowing with corpses.

Clearly, García Márquez was using the Plague as a metaphor for what he thought ailed society in the 1970s. It didn’t make much sense that his solution was to invest more power in centralized governments and further disenfranchise the individual as a political and economic free agent, but Latin American Leftism was never about logic. It was about faith in a secular god that failed. Year of the Plague is a strange time capsule from that overheated era, but its visuals and paranoid vibe still retain some potency for contemporary viewers. Worth checking out as a colorful product of its time, The Year of the Plague screens again tomorrow afternoon (8/13) at MoMA, as part of Future Imperfect.

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