New Order, written and directed by Michel Franco, won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2020. It has had a limited release in the UK and is now streaming on MUBI in the UK. I have been aware of Franco for some time but I hadn’t watched any of the films before New Order, which gained some extra promotion via Jason Wood’s new edition of The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema (2021). As Director of Cinema at HOME in Manchester, Wood was able to screen New Order and interview Franco. The MUBI presentation of the film includes a recorded Q&A featuring Franco and his lead player Naian González Norvind.
New Order is a ‘large scale’ film featuring expansive crowd scenes, multiple characters and dressing of locations across Mexico City. It doesn’t match the epic sweep of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (Mexico-US 2018), but with co-production money from France it is an impressive production. The New Order of the title refers to an ‘uprising’ in Mexico which leads to a period of chaos and then a military counter-revolution which delivers a dystopian martial law. Reactions to the film have been polarised but it has certainly provoked discussion and reflection. In the Q&A Franco refers to several recent events around the world, not just in Latin America but in Europe with the gilets jaunes, the storming of the White House by Trump supporters and the outcomes of the ‘Arab Spring’ – the situation in Egypt came to mind for me. Franco claims that it was the rise of right-wing populist movements from 2014 that fed into his script. (‘New Order’ is a term associated with fascist groups, especially the Nazis and their contemporary equivalents.) The problem for audiences appears to be that some have actually misread the events on screen and others have, not surprisingly, read them from their own particular ideological perspectives. Perhaps the most striking observation by both Franco and González Norvind in the Q&A was that in Mexico there is no ‘official story’, nobody is accountable and the corruption is such that most of the population never know what has actually happened. I have to say that the way politics and its media coverage is going in the UK/US and much of Europe, not to mention India and China, the Mexican experience is something that is beginning to be shared widely.
New Order begins with a montage of images which act rather like those at the beginning of episodes of TV serials, teasing us with shocking images from later scenes. When the narrative proper begins we see disruption and chaos in a hospital and a clear indication that violent events are happening in the city centre. The action then cuts to a lavish wedding party in an upper-class gated community. Marianne (Naian González Norvind), the daughter of the house, is to be married to Alan, an architect. There are many guests in the large modern mansion. A judge is due to arrive to register the marriage but on the radio/TV there are reports of looting and violence elsewhere in the sprawling city region. The specific inciting moment of the narrative is the arrival at the gates of Rolando, an ex-employee of the family, a servant who worked closely with the family and especially the children Marianne and her older brother Daniel. Ronaldo is seeking to borrow a large sum of money because his wife is dangerously ill and the public hospital is overwhelmed. If we have been concentrating we recognise him from the opening hospital scenes. Unless he can take his wife to a private hospital she will die. He is an almost Biblical figure, the poor man at the gate, arriving at the feast. But is his plea a ruse? Is he connected to the ‘trouble’ in the city as one character seems to suggest? The crucial decision is Marianne’s. She decides to leave her wedding in order to drive the couple to the private hospital. From this decision will come the trajectory of the narrative. Through Marianne, a wealthy young woman who has some form of social conscience, we will see the full impact of the uprising in the city and how it is put down. Some audiences have seen this as a skewed narrative, in which everything is from the perspective of the privileged. Others argue that it reveals the naivety of young wealthy characters like Marianne who live in their bubble and assume that their generosity will in some way assuage the angry demands of the poor. Marianne is the central character but in some ways it is Cristian, one of the servants closely linked to the family who most drives the action forward.
Cristian (Fernando Cuautle) is the nephew of Ronaldo and he and his mother Marta (Mónica Del Carmen) still work for the family. His character is familiar from many contemporary Mexican films, a key figure in narratives that explore social disparity. He is ‘of the poor’ but he works closely with the super rich. He drives their cars, organises the other workers and acts as their agent. His mother or his wife would be a housekeeper, personal maid or nanny for the rich children (like the maid in Roma). Mexican society is akin to the post-colonial European societies. Cristian is a ‘subaltern’ figure, a young man with knowledge of the rich world and a range of skills that allow him to operate the system, but he has no rights or privileges himself. ‘Uprisings’ of the poor place him in a very difficult position. Which side is he on? New Order is linked to all those dramas, melodramas, satires etc. from Mexico and other Latin American industries (especially Brazil) which explore social disparity and the tensions between a ‘European’ elite and a mestizo/indigenous majority population. It is also linked to some of the science fiction/speculative dystopia narratives that have emerged in Latin America. For instance, the idea of Zones set up to control movement following the counter revolution reminded me of La Zona (Mexico 2007).
I’m not sure what to make of New Order. I was impressed by the production and I see that the cinematography (in ‘Scope) was by Yves Cape. He has shot many of the French films that I have enjoyed over the past few years. New Order looks good and the narrative is compelling, but somehow the film didn’t move me. Perhaps I just wanted a clearer political argument? It could be that I’m just as naive as Marianne and that I can’t accept the ending that Michel Franco delivers. Some of the Press quotes suggest that the film is a wake-up call for the super rich. But New Order is worth watching and you might come to a different conclusion. Franco’s earlier film April’s Daughter (Mexico 2017) is also on MUBI.