A conquistador of yore stumbles out of the turbulent waves of the sea. A woman’s voice informs us that the impossible has occurred: This man is a ghost, the last of the vicious Spaniards who accompanied Hérnan Cortés on his brutal 1521 campaign against the Aztec Empire. He is now in the liminal space between the living and the dead, the past and the present, the colonizer and the colonized. But for what purpose? The nameless conquistador, played by Eduardo San Juan, stalks from the coast to Mexico City, retracing the bloody footsteps of Cortés. Simultaneously real yet intangible, his every action is suffused with magical realism. He tries to bark orders at a group of Indigenous schoolchildren, but his Catholic colonialist zeal halts as he realizes his words no longer matter. So begins 499, a surreal documentary/fiction hybrid by Mexican-American director Rodrigo Reyes. Reflecting on the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the film’s seemingly disparate elements in fact complement each other.
Reyes’s cinematography is languid and unhurried. Mercurial skies change color, the lighting is almost hazy, and the conquistador says less and listens more to the people he and his comrades once violently subjugated. This listening is presented in the film’s documentary segments, as real people across Mexico — from the mother of a murdered policeman to a skull-masked soldier-turned-mercenary — share their stories with the conquistador. They are working-class, poor, and Indigenous, precisely the communities we rarely see in cinema. In these interviews, Reyes’s lens is sharp and fixed. There are no abrupt cuts, maintaining a respectful focus on the subjects. This is juxtaposed with the quietly beautiful images the conquistador encounters. In arguably the most mesmerizing sequence, migrants traveling north take turns jumping aboard a moving train, the camera panning to show their precarious attempts.
It often feels like two very different films are at work side by side. The ghost never directly comments on what we see; instead he gloats and reminisces about the blood he shed, the gold he acquired, and the “savagery” of the Indigenous communities he encountered in 1521. He is not just a specter of Mexico’s colonial past; he could also represent the neocolonial intrusions by the United States, which has interfered across all of Latin America and forced millions to flee. This is the real strength of 499. It blends the surreal images of its fictional protagonist’s journey with its sharp, somber interviews to create something almost expressionist. This is slightly undercut by the final scene, which sets the conquistador on a new path after he listens to a harrowing story of a rape. The redemption of a colonizer is of little interest, particularly in a film whose only major flaw is its failure to address the colonized on similar terms. But regardless of how that ending makes you feel, 499 provides no answers — only poetic provocations that ask us to confront not only historical colonialism, but also its enduring violence.
499 is now playing in select theaters.
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.