Originally published on Ink 19 on January 6, 2020
The Emperor of Michoacan
directed by James Ramey and Arturo Pimentel
Having been initially drawn to the restoration of the majestic Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin in the town of Pátzcuaro in the Michoacán state of Mexico, directors James Ramey and Arturo Pimentel, would become witness to and subsequently chronicle the history and growing revitalization of the culture of the suppressed Purépecha people in their feature documentary, The Emperor of Michoacán.
Beginning in the dark early morning hours before the celebration of the Purépecha New Year, we follow the residents of multiple towns in Michoacán as they continue their resurgence of an indigenous tradition that saw a renaissance in 1983 after several hundred years of silence following the torture and execution of the Purépecha empire’s last emperor, Tangaxoan II, by Spanish conquistadors. Tangaxoan II’s death led to the Spanish government’s installation of puppet rulers who began a reign that sought to extinguish all remnants of the religion and customs of the Purépecha people.
Directors Pimentel and Ramey then examine the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin where we see the remnants of the Augustine convent that was originally part of the building, as well as significant murals that depict the geography and culture of Michoacán’s residents: a visual tribute to the accomplishments of Don Lázaro Cárdenas, the former governor of Michoacán, during his tenure as President of Mexico and a mural that portrays the fateful moment when conquistador Cristóbal de Olid was welcomed by Tangaxoan II. What follows are interviews with residents and scholars who then explain how the Spaniards pillaged the land, brought disease, and forced the people of that region to abandon their faith and customs while moving the location of the capital city multiple times to build a more Spanish-centric place. However, in weaving these accounts together, the directors confusedly deconstruct the timeline between Cristóbal de Olid’s arrival, the execution of Tangaxoan II, the unification of Pátzcuaro under Don Vasco de Quiroga, and the revitalization of the Purépecha New Year in 1983. Specifically, Pimentel and Ramey break away from the historical timeline of the Michoacán state that they establish in the first thirty minutes of the film to explain the shifting of the Purépecha centers of worship during the pre-Hispanic period in the region and the relocation of capital cities under Don Vasco de Quiroga’s reign as Bishop post-colonization, before disclosing the circumstances that led to the brutal death of Tangaxoan II, which took place in 1530 before Don Vasco’s appointment as the Bishop of Michoacán in 1536. This segment provides some more historical information about the state and the tensions between the cities within, but its timing and execution in the narrative fundamentally distract away from the understanding of the suppression and revitalization of the Purépecha culture.
As the directors delve into the pre- and post-Hispanic history of the Purépecha people in Michoacán and richly document today’s Purépecha New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, they similarly interrupt the narrative of the history and the restoration of Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin. During this interruption, we get the opportunity to understand the tensions between pre- and post-Hispanic elements in the Purépecha New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, and in turn, we are able to see how the current community reconciles and addresses these tensions in the rituals themselves, which is the strongest element of the film. Consequently, when we return to the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin in the final fifteen minutes of The Emperor of Michoacán, the transition is awkward, for the directors speed through the theater’s restoration and ultimately leave gaps in understanding how the theater fits into the preservation of the Purépecha culture. By this point, we understand the theater’s tribute in name to Tangaxoan II, and we understand the importance of the elements of history and culture in the artwork showcased in the theater. But, we still don’t fully know if the theater was ever used for gatherings or celebrations dedicated to Purépecha traditions in any way. As the film approaches its end, we see dance performances for the film’s own screening at the theater as well as the preparation of the fire for the New Year ritual outside, suggesting a conclusion that the theater can be a new space to facilitate the preservation of Purépecha traditions, which is commendable, but the return to the theater is too brief, and the narrative around it feels too incomplete to draw this conclusion satisfactorily.
In The Emperor of Michoacán‘s seventy-seven minute runtime, directors Pimentel and Ramey aim to execute a complex portrait of the suppression, preservation, revival, and adaptation of Purépecha culture. Though the film allows for rare and appreciated views into Purépecha history and traditions, its structure prevents it from achieving its goal. The restoration of the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin could have been the compelling connective tissue between the history of the Purépecha people in Michoacán and the ethnographic documentation of the revived New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, but instead this component feels abridged and ultimately highlights an identity struggle in the film—it’s partially an ethnographic observation piece; it’s partially a historical documentary; it’s partially a study of a building. The Emperor of Michoacán has a scope that is too large, and though it is likely that this emerged from the filmmakers’ desire to give the fullest respect possible to the Purépecha community, the film needs more time and a clearer structure in order to accomplish a full and nuanced analysis of the endurance of Purépecha traditions in the past and in the years to come.
Generoso and Lily Fierro