The savage political satire Herod's Law achieved its greatest success as a get-out-the-vote rallying film. Luis Estrada broke ground as the first Mexican filmmaker to attack the country's ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) government by name. Herod's release in the months before the 2000 election presaged the PRI losing its first election in 70 years. Although Herod's Law takes place in 1949, its anger feels immediate.
The film opens with a sequence out of lurid film noir as the mayor of the tiny village of San Pedro tries to flee with a suitcase full of cash, ahead of a torch-carrying lynch mob. Dimwitted PRI loyalist Juan Vargas (Damián Alcázar) delightedly accepts the appointment to be the replacement, until he finds San Pedro to be a ruined backwater where three mayors have been killed in five years.
Herod's superb first half shows how Vargas' sincere intentions to bring "modernity and social justice" to the town collide with political realities. His predecessors cashed in on every possible aspect of their office, with one even ransacking the schoolhouse: "He didn't sell the walls because nobody wanted to buy them." The rest of the villagers follow suit, from the town priest who collects one peso per sin at confession to an American engineer (Sid & Nancy director Alex Cox), whose exploitative attitude wickedly parodies U.S.-Mexican relations.
Estrada sets his tale of small-town graft to brassy mambo music and gives the sets and costumes a sepia color scheme to match the sun-baked dirt roads. With its mix of laugh-out-loud jokes and formal stylishness, Herod's Law has the vibe of a south-of-the-border Coen Brothers movie.
Alcazar's larger-than-life comic performance takes Vargas from complete innocence to utter dissipation -- he goes from meekly trying to close the brothel to being its best customer to trying to profit off it. But Vargas so ardently embraces corruption and illegality that the film becomes little more than a political cautionary tale.
Estrada directs with confidence and energy, yet he gradually flattens the characterizations and loses his sense of humor (despite the amusing use of the town's pigs for recurring sight gags). Herod's Law proves as memorable and sharp as the best cartoons from the Op-Ed page, but it had the makings to be richer than that. Opens July 11 at Madstone Theaters.