Talk about incongruities of tone. This Mexican picture–which was released in its homeland nearly four years ago, only to become the center of political controversy because of its criticism of the then-dominant PRI and temporarily withdrawn from circulation–is half Preston Sturges and half Sam Peckinpah. For the first hour “Herod’s Law” is a south-of-the-border satire along the lines of “The Great McGinty,” with a honest doofus named Juan Vargas (Damian Alcazar) named mayor of a penurious town to stifle a scandal, only to be drawn into the corrupt system himself. But at about mid-point the movie grows far darker as the worm turns and proves himself more brutal than any of his predecessors–and, as it turns out, his erstwhile “handlers” higher up in the party. By the close there’s almost as much bloodletting as there was in “Straw Dogs.”
It’s always nice to encounter a picture that aims to be different, and Luis Estrada’s certainly falls into that category. You also have to respect a filmmaker who takes on entrenched political power at considerable personal and professional danger. But “Herod’s Law” is frankly a movie that’s easier to admire than to enjoy. It’s well-made: the dilapidated character of San Pedro de los Saguardos, as it’s called, is nicely conveyed, and Alcazar’s grizzled face and downtrodden appearance mesh with it perfectly. Some of the supporting performers add sharp notes to the narrative, too: Salvador Sanchez makes an appealing milquetoast as Vargas’ timid secretary Pek, and director Alex Cox is slyly subversive as a greedy, lecherous gringo. Other members of the cast are less impressive, coming on too strong: Pedro Armendariz as the ambitious PRI bigwig who appoints Vargas, Guillermo Gil as the greedy village priest, Eduardo Lopez Rojas as the doctor who opposes the PRI, and Isela Vega as the madam whose surliness causes the mayor’s shift in tactics all italicize their parts. (Of course, the characters were always broadly drawn by Sturges, too.)
But what ultimately makes “Herod’s Law” less bracing than it might have been are its length–by stretching the story out to a full two hours Estrada mutes its impact–and the simple fact that the two halves aren’t smoothly joined. Vargas turns from bumbling poseur to brutal town boss so abruptly that the transformation lacks the credibility that even a satire demands. And in reaching for an over-the-top conclusion, the picture barely stays on the rails.
Still, though it sometimes takes its swipes with a bludgeon rather than a scalpel, “Herod’s Law” has juicy targets–governmental corruption, clerical greed, American exploitation–and it hits more often than it misses. And at a time when the PRI seems to be rising again, it may be even more timely now than when it was originally released.