The Mexican festival of San Juan de Dios celebrates a man who is said to have rescued hundreds of people from a blazing hospital without suffering a single burn; he is the patron saint of pyrotechnics.
If that sounds like a specialized saint, you haven’t visited Tultepec, where three-quarters of the population makes fireworks for a living.
Brimstone & Glory, an unusual and oddly gripping documentary by German director Viktor Jakovleski in his feature-length debut, follows the townspeople as they prepare for what is officially known as the National Pyrotechnic Festival, especially its two main events: the Castles of Fire, and the Burning of the Bulls.
There’s no real narrative, no talking heads.
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Brimstone & Glory
● Directed by Viktor Jakovleski
● In Spanish, with English subtitles
● Cinematheque, to Aug. 31
● 67 minutes
★★★★1/2 out of five
This isn’t a film about the festival per se, nor is it about how pyrotechnics are created; the cameras capture the matter-of-fact business of daily work in a deadly trade — done by people who have little choice in the matter — as well as the passionate devotion to the craft of pyrotechnics and its thrilling, awe-inspiring results.
"Since we’re not chemists, our measurements aren’t perfect," says one man. "A handful of this, a handful of that."
This uncertainty, this sense of danger, is felt in almost every scene; you may find yourself holding your breath as you watch people, sporting industrial masks, gingerly mixing potent chemicals and gunpowder, or casually holding lit cigarettes near fuses.
The local bomberos (firefighters) are always on the lookout for smoke from explosions, some minor, some tragic.
No one seems to think twice about having to extinguish a lawn fire by hurling buckets of water through a fence.
The film is refreshingly undidactic, presenting, without comment, a scene of a man using his fingerless stump to pack powder into a firecracker; his other hand is missing its thumb.
Another GoPro shot, more truly terrifying than any of the CGI effects in the Dwayne Johnson blockbuster Skyscraper, catches the multiple burn scars on a man’s arms as he climbs up 25 metres of rickety scaffolding, without a harness, to work on his "castle," a towering structure with many moving features that will fling fireworks into the night sky,
If the film has a star, it’s little Santi, a shining-eyed boy of 10 or 11 who has "gunpowder in the blood" — something to be celebrated but also lamented by his poor mother. His healthy fear of injury is clearly in a battle with his fascination for fire, and in a town where something is always burning, it’s clear which one will win out.
Both eager and nervous, he trails around behind the hotshot pyrotechnic teams, who clearly have the respect of the whole town for the elaborate structures they design for the festival.
As the main event nears, the police force readies for chaos in the streets, and EMTs are instructed to give priority to the severely burned — let the drunks and the merely singed wait their turn. (This warning is not misplaced; many people will be seriously injured during the fest.)
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The film’s balance of terror and elation comes to a head during the climactic event, quema de toros — the burning of the bulls. These stunning creations are made of papier-mâché affixed to a wire frame in the shape of a bull and mounted on wheels so they can barrel through the dark streets, spraying fire. Some are so massive that their papier-mâché testicles are larger than the head of the men pushing them.
Their brightly painted bodies are festooned with artfully placed firecrackers; when lit, they pinwheel off in all directions, creating a scene of glorious mayhem that’s like the running of the bulls, but with the added danger of fiery projectiles. "Everything that hits you burns," says one participant.
The cinematography — some by drones, some created with a Phantom High Speed Camera — is astonishing, giving us hypnotic slow-motion views of incendiary devices exploding and glorious nighttime scenes of dancers stamping wildly and flailing as sparks shower down on them, the whistling sound of rockets overhead.
Paired with an evocative score by Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild), it’s an unforgettable scene of ecstasy, a dance that affirms life in the face of the constant threat of death, and an abiding faith that the dancer will emerge from the fire unscathed.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dedaumier
Jill Wilson Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
Brimstone & Glory’s greatest grace comes from its subjects, whom Jakovleski neither patronizes nor fetishizes.
— Kristen Page-Kirby, Washington Post
The problem with the movie is that you have to really, really be interested in the people of this town to see this as a serious culture.
— Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
Mixing sheer spectacle with modest but pleasing human-interest threads, Viktor Jakovleski’s first directorial feature is a poetical, entrancing documentary that should delight niche viewers across many cultural borders.
— Dennis Harvey, Variety
The film... has a wandering attention span and grows monotonous even at barely more than one hour.
— Ben Kenigsberg, New York Times
But (Brimstone & Glory) deftly captures the skill, passion and peril behind the fireworks, as well as the love of a family whose livelihood is rooted in this booming trade.
— Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times
A movie that repays being seen on a big reflective screen, one on which the image is projected rather than one from which the image emanates.