The link between fireworks and warfare is one of the first examples of symbolism many Americans encounter as children. We enjoy the hallucinatory spectacle of the Fourth of July while being reminded that the pretty displays stand for bombs and guns and bloodshed. Indulging in an annual pretend reminder of war seems like something that should be a very First World privilege, but life and cinema have both proven that everyone loves explosions. Brimstone & Glory, in a lean 67 minutes of cinematic poetry, bears that love out in dizzying extremes.
If you come to Brimstone and Glory looking for a rigorous, journalistic investigation into the why and how of the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico, and by extension the significance of pyrotechnics to the Mexican people, you’ll be disappointed. This film comes from the Court 13 film collective, best known for Benh Zeitlin’s breakout 2012 Sundance success story Beasts of the Southern Wild. Brimstone & Glory shares that film’s impressionistic, mythic styling, and even some imagery: early on, one of the young subjects of the film runs off across an empty lot with a sparkler in each hand, recalling young Quvenzhané Wallis on the Beasts poster. In Brimstone, it’s a manic, freewheeling moment, empowering to the young person holding the flames and foreshadowing the impossibly precarious explosions to come.
The setting is the annual ten-day gathering in Tultepec, whose origins are the feast of San Juan de Dios, patron saint of fireworks. There truly is a saint for everything, it turns out, and a religious fervor runs throughout the film, as we tour a community whose families’ lives are centered on pyrotechnics, and the upcoming festival in particular. The handful of minutes where their creations are ablaze in all their glory is what their year is built around. Rather than conducting actual interviews or taking time out for formal exposition, director Viktor Jakovleski’s cameras wander around the town intuitively, every now and then narrated by a young boy who comes from a family of pyrotechnicians, and looks forward to the festival with equal parts excitement and fear.
The excitement is understandable enough, the fear we come to understand. Suffice to say that there’s no way the festival in Tultepec could pass any kind of safety code north of the border. Brimstone builds up to the two centerpieces of the festival: first, the Day of the Castles, where huge, multistory towers are erected and festooned with spark-showering fireworks and flaming pinwheels. Via GoPros mounted on the technicians’ helmets, we get to see practically firsthand the vertigo-inducing process of fusing and setting off these towering infernos, a big-screen experience more nauseating than any gross-out horror set piece I’ve seen this year. As the sun sets, a storm gathers, and two of the towers are struck by lightning. Seems like a bad omen, but also a dream for a documentary filmmaker in search of a poetic image to capture the death-defying hubris on display.
The second day is the Day of the Bulls, a spectacle that almost defies description. Colorful, homemade explosive-filled bulls are run through the streets, and the height of the frenzy could almost resemble insurgent warfare, save for the fact that the revelers are dancing among the flames. Our young narrator tells us that the whole lesson of San Juan is that celebrants take away a souvenir from the festival, a scar or a burn. That’s when the saint has touched you, he explains. A triage stands at the ready on-site, matter-of-factly prepared for the injuries that inevitably start pouring in, but at no point does anyone consider increasing safety measures, or maybe not standing 20 feet away from a boat-sized piñata loaded with bottle rockets. It’s a way of life, one that is often deadly — even as recently as last year, an enormous explosion in the town’s firework market killed dozens of people. The people of Tultepec, the visitors, and Jakovleski all seem to understand that pain and injury are the price to pay for this tradition, and the pride of the town.