In 1519, Spanish conquistador Diego de Ordaz was tasked by Hernán Cortés – then in the midst of conquering Mexico – with ascending to the top of the Popocatepetl, the second highest volcano in the country, at over 17,000 feet above sea level, to collect sulphur in order to make gunpowder. It was a massive undertaking that was rightfully immortalized in history books. Now it is recreated in Epitafio (Epitaph), from directors Yulene Olaizola and Rubén Imaz.
The directors’ approach to this adventure movie material is minimalist: set in a single location with only three actors and very little dialogue, pretty much the only thing that suggests this is a period piece are the costumes. Stripping the film down to the essentials allows Olaizola and Imaz to focus on its most compelling aspect: a raw, almost primal story of man versus nature.
As the three ill-equipped soldiers ascend to the summit, with only their faith in God and country to survive, they face off against the very worst Mother Nature has to offer: howling winds, hot ash and bitter cold, coupled with the physical strain of making such an impossible climb. The directorial duo make great use of atmospheric sound to make the audience feel as if they are also a part of this monumental undertaking; it’s nail-biting stuff delivered with a more low-key, subtle sensibility.
This probably isn’t the first review to mention this, but it’s impossible not to think of Werner Herzog while watching Epitafio; the German director wrote the book on “madmen defying nature” stories and his influence is clearly felt. Right from its first scene, when the three men stand in awe at the foot of the volcano, completely dwarfed by their surroundings, this becomes a story about man foolishly playing God. Their faith is put to the test, and it becomes less and less reassuring the harder the journey gets. By the time Ordaz – played with ironclad determination by Spanish actor Xabier Coronado – gives a grandiose speech proclaiming his unshakeable belief in the goals of his mission, the roaring winds are his only audience.
Nobody’s listening anymore; the mission and conquest don’t matter to fickle Mother Nature, and the conquistadors can’t help but be overwhelmed. In the majesty of the volcano, their grand adventure feels minimal. The message seems to be that in the end, nature calls the shots and when faced with its power, we are all insignificant.
Less a rousing adventure film and more of a meditation on man’s place in the natural order of things, Epitafio is a compelling, well-made historical epic and easily one of the best films playing at this year’s festival.
The Lima Film Festival runs from 5-13 August.