'Cinco de Mayo: The Battle' Channels the Spirit of Mexican Cinema's Rise

Sunday is Cinco de Mayo, and all of Orange County will engage in some type of Mexican mocking, whether trying to seduce some MILF at Javier's, getting shitfaced on discounted Coronas in HB, buying overpriced tortas at the festivals in Anaheim and Santa Ana, or wearing massive sombreros just for the hell of it—no one giving a damn about the actual event the holiday marks. If only there were some sort of god to force clueless gabachos (and Mexicans, for that matter) to sit down in penance and watch Cinco de Mayo: The Battle, a gripping war epic based on the actual Battle of Puebla between the French and Mexican armies that recently premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival as its Mexican Spotlight film for this year.

Directed by Rafa Lara, the film not only illustrates the history behind the 1861 battle that kept away the Hapsburgs for one more year, but also seamlessly fuses together fictional storylines to create a solid narrative. Starring Mexican actors Christian Vasquez, Kuno Becker and Liz Gallardo, it chronicles the imperial power struggle between England, France and Spain over Mexico, as well as the French appetite to seize Mexican soil, specifically the town of Puebla. Outnumbered by the French and lacking healthy soldiers and vital supplies, Mexican troops defend their homeland from the French monarchy's attack—a universal underdog story that should appeal to any audience.

Viewers can expect the graphic imagery and violence that any war epic warrants. The battle scenes were shot with a handheld camera, so the action feels grounded with documentary-style truthfulness. As the saying goes, war is hell.

This the largest picture Lara has ever made, as well as one of the largest produced in Mexico in recent memory. He decided to make Cinco de Mayo to commemorate the event's 152nd anniversary, but he realized that to make it palatable to modern-day audiences, he needed to secure such marquee names as Becker, who plays the Mexican general Ignacio Zaragoza.

“[It's] every Mexican actor's dream to play Ignacio Zaragoza, considering what a major figure he is in Mexico,” the baby-faced actor says. Rather unrecognizable as Zaragoza, Becker fills his role with fierce grit and humanity. Known stateside mostly for recurring roles on Dallas, House and CSI: Miami, he says he prefers the more rounded-out characters offered by Mexican filmmakers. “Foreign actors still feel some level of difficulty in breaking through American movies and television, but I'm fortunate to be able to adapt to both countries' industries, and I'm proud that Mexico's film industry is growing and thriving like it is.”

“Our cinema is definitely going to be taking off a lot more now,” Lara adds. “I wrote Cinco de Mayo with a global audience in mind—it's not just for Mexicans. And soon it will be distributed all over the world. [The Battle of Puebla] seems like a tiny event, but it changed the course of history and affects every country. Can you imagine what kind of world we'd be living in now if Mexico had lost against the French or, worse, given up?”

What seems most impressive about Cinco de Mayo is its micro budget; it cost about $10 million to make and was completed in only nine weeks. “I had to find ways to be creative with this film; I didn't want the money to be a disadvantage,” Lara says. “It's probably the biggest, most expensive film Mexico has ever made. But I hear feedback all the time about how good it looks and how expensive it must have been to make. But we produced the whole thing with a fraction of what it costs to make an American film.”

Financing films in Mexico is something Lara admits is difficult, but he looks back at the experience of making Cinco de Mayo as exemplary of the Mexican experience. “I had the help of thousands of people, from the people of Puebla to the extras,” he says. “We will always find ways to tell our stories, no matter what. Working within limitations creates interesting outcomes because it makes us focus on quality over quantity. It's the Latino way.”

Drinko for Cinco to that, cabrones.


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