Though its ambitions outstrip its accomplishments, writer-director Salvador Carrasco's account of the 16th–century clash between the Aztecs and Spaniards as embodied in two men fiercely devoted to their own faiths was hugely successful in Mexico. It took nine years to make it to U.S. theaters, its path most likely paved by Mel Gibson's APOCALYPTO (2006).
Mexico, 1521: Two years after the arrival of Hernando Cortes (Inaki Aierra) and his army, the Aztec nation is in ruins, its royal family dead — with the exception of Emperor Montezuma's oldest daughter, Tecuichpo (Elpidia Carrillo), who's become Cortes' mistress — its temples laid waste to and its religion banned as barbaric by the Spanish. Shortly after the arrival of Friar Diego (Jose Carlos Rodriguez), whose determination to save the souls of the natives of "New Spain" is tempered by innate compassion, Topiltzin (Damian Delgado), an illegitimate son of Montezuma who lost most of his family in a brutal massacre at the Great Temple, is captured by Cortes' soldiers while making a human sacrifice to the goddess of the sun. He compounds the crime by assaulting Friar Diego and escapes into the hills, but he is eventually betrayed by his own brother (Guillermo Rios). Tecuichpo intercedes on his behalf, telling Cortes that he's her half brother; rather than being executed, Topiltzin is sentenced to public whipping and forced conversion. Principled Friar Diego refuses to participate in conversion under duress and intercedes when the flogging degenerates into sadistic torture. Five years later, Topiltzin has been renamed Tomas and is a novice friar at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Sun, where Friar Diego is supervising his Catholic education. Tecuichpo, whom Cortes has rechristened Dona Isabel, comes once a week to teach him Spanish. But though Topiltzin and Tecuichpo have assumed the facade of accepting Spanish culture, they remain devoted to preserving their own heritage, even sleeping together in hopes of preserving Montezuma's bloodline. Inevitably they're caught, and the real battle of wills begins.
Caught between efforts to redress Eurocentric accounts of the conquest of Mexico and a tendency to slide into old-movie melodramatics, Carrasco's film is often gorgeous, never less than entertaining and occasionally moving. Carrasco's willingness to focus on the battle of wills between Friar Diego and Topiltzin is a bold one: It's easier to show epic battles than spiritual struggles, and Friar Diego is written with a subtlety the rest of the Spaniard characters lack. Topiltzin's delirious visions of the Virgin Mary and his beloved sun goddess could easily seem camp, but Delgado brings complete conviction to his fevered performance, while Rodriguez provides a cooler counterpart, less flamboyant but equally rooted in his beliefs.
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