What does anarchy look like? The events of January 6, 2021 when a violent mob stormed the U.S. capitol provided a chilling example of social order under siege but this has happened before. Remember New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005? The communications infrastructure was temporarily disabled, support services and emergency aid were unavailable and security became an issue as looting and other criminal activities took place until some semblance of order was restored by the arrival of National Guard troops a few days later. The absence of law enforcement and a rising sense of panic and chaos was broadcast to TV viewers around the world. Michel Franco’s New Order (2021), the Grand Jury Prize winner at the Venice Film Festival, taps into this fear of impending dystopia with a gripping thriller set in the wealthy enclave of what appears to be Mexico City but is never explicitly identified.
The viewer is immediately plunged into a festive wedding party hosted by one of the city’s most prominent families as Alan (Dario Yazbek Bernal), a young architect, and his bride-to-be Marianne (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) await the arrival of a judge to marry them. A distinctly rigid hierarchy between the wedding attendees and the working staff is made obvious as Rebeca (Lisa Owen), the family matriarch, dishes out orders to her servants and maids.
In the midst of the celebration, we sense that something is amiss. The water coming out of the faucet has a sickly green color, there are police sirens wailing and the sounds of yelling protestors in the distance. The unexpected arrival of Rolando (Eligio Melendez), a former employee of the family, is another unwanted distraction. His wife Elisa needs an emergency heart operation and he needs to immediately borrow $100,000. Rolando is eventually turned away with a fraction of the money but when Marianne learns about this, she takes action. With the help of Cristian (Fernando Cuautle), Rolando’s nephew, Marianne drives to Rolando’s home to provide financial assistance, intending to return in time for her wedding vows.
During their absence, the wedding party is invaded by a group of armed guerrillas who execute and wound some of the guests while ransacking the mansion and vandalizing the rooms and prized possessions. Meanwhile, Marianne and Cristian are rerouted from the main streets due to armed police barricades and rioters in the street. When they eventually arrive at Rolando’s home, an enforced curfew is in effect and they are powerless to do anything but wait as Elisa’s physical condition becomes dire.
At this point New Order descends into the realm of nightmare as guerrilla forces begin kidnapping members of the city’s elite and subjecting them to torture and abuse until their families pay an exorbitant ransom. Even that is no guarantee that the abductees will be released or survive their captivity. In an ironic twist it is Marianne, the one sympathetic character among the wealthy party-goers, who suffers the most abuse. As the saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
One of the most striking aspects of New Order is how Franco positions the 1% elitists as the victims in an insurrection that they unintentionally stoked for years with their indifference and unjust policies toward the majority working class. If the film’s viewpoint had been from the prospective of one of guerrilla chieftains, Marianne’s family and friends might have appeared more loathsome and deserving of their fates. Yet, seeing the rich finally get their comeuppance offers no relief here because the level of barbarity on display is anti-human.
Director Franco has intimated in interviews that New Order is a cautionary tale not just for Mexico City but the state of the world in general. It could indeed happen here and is why the film is such a gripping and horrifying visceral experience. In an interview with Federico Grandesso of Metal Magazine, Franco said, “When you have a country with sixty million poor people that is so polarized with very few warranties, especially for more than half of the country, there is no room for it. Everything is very thin and fragile. In many countries, people are locked down and they receive some economic aid, some help. In Mexico, there is nothing. Everyone is for themselves. I think that’s a terrible thing. Most people in Mexico are living their lives on a daily basis, so I’m worried about the outcome in the next weeks and months because people are hitting rock bottom. We need to have more empathy; that’s the only way.”
New Order is not for the timid and many moviegoers will probably choose to avoid seeing such a grim, nihilistic view of society in collapse. Still, this is no exploitation film and Franco knows how to make a dramatic impact without resorting to gratuitous extremes. In one scene, we see a naked male prisoner who is about to be sodomized with a cattle prod. As the camera moves away to focus on the other prisoners, we hear his agonized screams which is more than sufficient to get the full shock effect. But more horrors are to come and by the end of the film you realize there are no heroes – just victims and their tormentors.
Some film critics have compared Franco’s work to the films of Michael Haneke in that they delve into the dark side of human behavior and life itself. At the same time, Franco seems more interested in exploring social issues through bleak and disturbing scenarios that raise questions without providing answers or closure. He has often been lumped into the miserablist school of cinema which includes such idiosyncratic filmmakers as Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, 2002), Bela Tarr (Satantango, 1994) and Bruno Dumont (The Life of Jesus, 1997). To be sure, Franco’s films are challenging and hard to watch at times, but they also provoke discussions among moviegoers which is always needed in addressing polarizing subject matter.
Franco, who was born in Mexico City, got his start making short films beginning with Huerfanos in 1998. His feature film debut, Daniel and Ana (2009), created considerable controversy due to its storyline of a brother and sister who are kidnapped by underground pornographers and forced to perform in a sex film.
His subsequent films have proven to be just as tough and uncompromising. After Lucia (2012) is about a teenage girl who gets drunk and has sex at a party and then becomes a victim of bullying by her peers. In Through the Eyes (2014), a social worker resorts to desperate means to get an eye transplant for her son who is going blind. Chronic (2015) features Tim Roth as a lonely male nurse who becomes obsessive over the terminally ill patients in his care. A manipulative mother is at the center of April’s Daughter (2017), in which a pregnant teenager and her lover are soon victimized by an older adult.
New Order, Franco’s sixth feature, might be his most important work to date and a possible breakthrough film in terms of attracting U.S. audiences. David Rooney, the reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter, confirms the film’s effectiveness as a warning shot. “Given the risk of right-wing doom scenarists like the Trump base misinterpreting all this as a warning of what could happen when lawless protesters gain control, Franco is careful to point up the rotten core of the ruling class and the strong arm of law enforcement that tend to maintain control by whatever means necessary….Audiences might conceivably be divided on the vicious gut punch of Franco’s approach, but as a call for more equitable distribution of wealth and power, it’s terrifyingly riveting.”
Neon, which also distributed the Oscar winner Parasite, acquired the rights to New Order and the film has played numerous film festivals in 2020. An official release for New Order in the U.S. has yet to be announced as of January 2021.
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