Blossoms of Fire

The film is a lush bouquet of women

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A Mexican matriarchy: Documentary is a deep look at the culture's soul

By David Elliott, MOVIE CRITIC. San Diego Union Tribune

July 21, 2001

"Blossoms of Fire," a film of immersion into a culture that has kept its soul, proves that Mexico is not the monolith of pain, passion and poverty so often codified for American consumption by the border, NAFTA, the PAN/PRI struggle and the corrosive problems of Mexico City.

Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian director who made "Que Viva Mexico" as his own intoxicated reading of the country, thought that perhaps Eden existed (and lingers) in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the slender neck of Mexico between the Gulf and the Pacific. Maureen Gosling's documentary on the enduring society of the place, notably in the small city of Juchitán, Oaxaca, affirms his intuition.

Her movie is both gripped and relaxed. As one of the proud, full-bodied striders down Juchitán's streets puts it, "I put on my most powerful dress, and it lifts my spirits."

Gosling doesn't flash (like Eisenstein) a lot of technique, because she has all the color and complexity she needs in the faces of the Zapotec people, in their fashions, cuisine, music and long, lavish parties (as a man says, existence is for "food, clothes and fiestas").

Gosling has a feminist angle without slanting the film rhetorically, though there may be a touch of cultural envy. The indigenous society is a matriarchy, the women dominating the homes, handicrafts and the plaza market where they bring their products.

While men do much of the heavy hauling and probably assert some of the usual macho prerogatives (this is still Mexico), most seem quite happy to let the women rule the families, the rather modest flow of money and the luxuriant flow of native cultural products.

The film is a lush bouquet of women, young and old, the grandmothers often the most powerful. The females are often decked in splendidly floral native dresses, exploding with color. And there is an almost Flemish headpiece that frames the face florally (in a famous painting, Frida Kahlo depicted herself in one).

We hear from ethnologists and other experts, but the movie informs without using a pointer. It lets people talk as they go about their work or stage their big parties. Some of the women are gay. Some of the sons are, too, happy to dress up while living cozily with mom and the sisterhood (one old father has a look that says, "What can you do?").

Though close to conflicted Chiapas, it's an unusually peaceful, resilient society, but under the pressure of change that threatens small cultures everywhere. There is a chilling shot of Zapotec boys in a row, staring at video games, and Spanish is supplanting the native tongue.

Fiercely entranced by its colors, its women and its collage of small pieces handsomely arranged, "Blossoms of Fire" was made over a long struggle but doesn't show much sweat. For just $200,000, the film has human wealth, and you won't find that at your usual multiplex production. END