Compelling documentaries begin with charismatic and singular subjects — from Robert J. Flaherty’s Allakariallak, renamed Nanook, and the Maysles brothers’ “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, all the way to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Exceptional figures and larger-than-life personalities lend themselves to memorable instances of the genre. For his breakthrough feature, The Charro of Toluquilla (debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival this past week) José Villalobos brings us the outsized presence of Jaime “El Charro” García. And he brought him to Tribeca as well…
A charro is a Mexican mounted cowboy wearing an ornate suit, a sombrero and carrying a pistol. He is a fighter and a lover, and the mariachi iteration of the charro seduces through song. It’s a masculine archetype that was consolidated and popularized during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. In fact, Jaime’s family is seen watching an old charro film on TV, a nod toward what was undoubtedly a formative influence.
The ingenuity of Villalobos’ film is that it takes this pillar of Mexican masculinity and exposes it to the scrutiny of prolonged and unobstructed observation. (He revealed during the Q&A that he had collected over 250 hours of Jaime footage.) Consequently, we witness not only the victories and conquests of the charro, but the exposure of his vulnerabilities and defeats as well. The film departs from the austerity and insistence upon pure observation characteristic of the Direct Cinema documentary tradition, however, in its creative uses of sound, staging and juxtaposition in editing. These highlight the anachronism of the figure of the charro in rendering it absurd for its context, and editorialize a call to reconsider the characteristic machismo of the charro — or anyone else, for that matter — in the 21st century.
And this deconstruction of the charro begins with what feels like a startling avowal for the small town of Toluquilla in the foothills south of Guadalajara — Jaime is HIV-positive. His disclosure frames the ensuing seduction of multiple women, visits to the dentist and doctor, and other depictions of the precarious body. On the one hand, Jaime is seen performing at a local bar as a singer, capturing the attention and sexual interest of many women, and courting them with a trunk replete with separate bouquets of flowers for different conquests. Subsequently, he suffers from alcohol poisoning, a tooth infection, he writhes in pain from a rigorous massage and he is repeatedly scolded by his fiancée for his brazen infidelities.
While Jaime rides his beautiful mare in his charro uniform, Villalobos reveals that he travels by mini-van for family outings and excursions, familiar for their uncomfortable conversation and conflicts. Even when performing impressive equestrian feats, aggrandized by the cartoonish traditional music of Villalobos’ soundtrack, the frame betrays their authenticity by revealing that they take place near a modern prefabricated housing development. The mythic Mexican pastoral, immortalized by that same Golden Age cinema, reveals itself as a fiction in The Charro of Toluquilla. If it ever existed, it no longer does. Jaime drives his horse to run in circles, waving his sombrero in the air as a police helicopter lifts off, leaving the dust he is kicking up in its dust.
Following the film, the Tribeca reception of Jaime was largely warm and admirative, though it was not without some tension. True to form, “El Charro” showed up as a performer, pleased to receive the applause of his filmic audience, and even taking the initiative to interview them with the microphone during the Q&A. He sang, he flirted with female audience members, he spoke about his relationship with his daughter and his lovers in the aftermath of the film, and he told us about the experience of being filmed for a documentary — the camera did not bother him. He is a natural exhibitionist. One woman in the audience pointed to the elephant in the room, that the film might reinforce ugly stereotypes about Mexican masculinity. Another woman gamely cried mujeriego! (womanizer!) as he took the stage. Villalobos explained that it was his intention not to shy away from the stereotype, but rather to acknowledge it and move past it by documenting Jaime’s life in detail. Jaime, for his part, did not attempt to apologize or disavow any part of his “performance.” He was happy to talk about the good things.
The Charro of Toluquilla is definitely worth seeing, as Jaime is a character that you will not soon forget. There is a bit of a lull in the film’s third act. It’s as if such a rigorous exposure of the life of the charro — one that brings him off his high horse, as it were — precludes any possibility of a real sense of closure or resolution. Villalobos and Jaime brilliantly overcome this problem by staging a run on his horse, with his daughter, colt and dog in tow, across Guadalajara’s new Matute Remus Bridge at night as its epilogue. It’s a poetic finish that acknowledges itself as a fabrication, staging the contradictions and anachronisms at play in the figure of the charro at the heart of the film.
Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University.