Thursday, May 05, 2011

Once Upon a Time in Mexico, There Was a Revolution

Robert Rodriguez's Mexico Trilogy presents an image of a land of desperation. Lawful authority has absconded from the countryside, leaving the people to fend for themselves against powerful criminal cartels.

As the concluding chapter, Once Upon a Time in Mexico begins, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) is living in a town of guitar-makers. He lives a monk-like existence, simply trying to pass his time in peace.

Yet a desire for revenge continues to burn within him. When Cucuy (Danny Trejo) extracts him from the village -- under threat of violence to its peaceful inhabitants -- he is presented with an opportunity not only to seek his revenge for the murder of Caroline (Salma Hayek, who appears in flashbacks), but also justice for Mexico as a whole.

For the first time, lawful authority makes a prominent appearance in the Mexico Trilogy. Ajedrez (Eva Mendes), an AFN agent, Jorge (Ruben Blades), a former FBI Agent, a Mexican General, Marques (Gerardo Vigil), and the President of Mexico, identified only as El Presidente (Pedro Armendariz) occupy the plot of the film.

It should be noted that being representative of government is by no means representative of lawful authority. Sands (Johnny Depp) is a corrupt CIA agent, and so represents a government, but clearly represents no lawful authority.

Moreover, being representative of lawful authority by no means imparts legitimacy or virtue. Ajedrez is deeply corrupt, and working for Armando Barillo (Willem Dafoe), the drug lord plotting a coup d'etat against El Presidente.

In order to prevent El Presidente from cracking down on his drug operation and the base of power he's been building, Barillo wants to supplant El Presidente with a military dictatorship led by General Marquez. Marquez, in turn, was a client of Desperado's Bucho.

Following the death of Bucho, Marquez hunted El Mariachi until his disappearance, and murdered Caroline along the way.

Sands contracts El Mariachi to kill Marquez once he has finished killing El Presidente. Sands true goal, however, is much more selfish: he wants to siphon a personal fortune off of the coup d'etat and siappear.

Moreover, Sands uses the personal stakes of nearly everyone involved to his advantage: El Mariachi's desire for revenge against Marquez, Jorge's desire for revenge for the torture and murder of his partner by Barillo. The personal stakes of others are Sands' source of power.

Barillo's source of power is different: his source of power is his seemingly-generous gifts to the residents of rural Mexico, building them homes with the spoils of his criminal enterprises.

Marquez's source of power is the loyalty of the soldiers under his command. With implied continual grift supplied by Barillo, he's able to maintain that loyalty quite amply.

El Mariachi, however, formulates his own plans. Instead of killing El Presidente, he plans to kill General Marquez, and eliminate the most potent threat to the President's lawful authority. He knows that only El Presidente can rid Mexico of Barillo and deliver true freedom, peace, and justice to the people of Mexico.

If El Mariachi represents the libertarian impulse of personal liberty, El Presidente represents his counterpart in terms of lawful authority.

Amidst the ambition of El Presidente is a genuine desire to deliver freedom to the people of Mexico. El Mariachi recognizes this. He realizes that he, as an individual, cannot accomplish this.

What he can do is help eliminate Barillo's most powerful henchman, and thus make it possible for lawful authority to reassert itself in the countryside.

Amongst the anarchy raging in the Mexican countryside, it's easy to mistake the lack of lawful authority for freedom. But the people there recognize that they have no freedom. Their freedom is firmly constrained by the coercion of the military-backed drug cartels.

The coup d'etat is finally too much for the people to bear. They take to the streets and they fight for the lawful authority of El Presidente. As imperfect as Mexico's democracy may be, the citizens decide that their imperfect democracy, and their imperfect leader, are worth waaging a revolution over: a revolution against the corrupt military backing the drug cartels that have effectively enslaved them.

At the end of the film, freedom has not yet returned to Mexico. But (at risk of divulging too much of the film's ending) it's clear that it can.

Although El Mariachi represents the libertarian spirit of Mexico, El Presidente represents its hope for law and order.

For its only amidst law and order that libertarian hopes for personal liberty can truly survive. As the Mexico Trilogy concludes, there is, at last, hope.

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