At a press conference a government official downplays the possibility of an encroaching pandemic telling reporters everything’s under control. In a closed meeting, doctors and health commissioners are expressly told that what’s of utmost importance is avoiding a sense of panic in the public even in the face of what’ll likely become a health crisis. On television, an anchor cautions viewers to not heed the paranoid rantings of subversive anti-government spokesmen who claim there’s a virus affecting a large swath of the population. While seemingly ripped from today’s headlines these scenes belong not to the COVID-19 reality rippling all over the U.S. but to a Mexican feature film from 1979.
While films like Contagion and Outbreak find themselves belatedly reaching the zeitgeist in their depiction of global epidemics, Felipe Cazals’ El año de la peste (The Year of the Plague) feels eerily timely because it focuses more on the failures of a bureaucracy that would rather drown out facts with screams of “fake news!” than to fight for disenfranchised communities most affected by a mysterious bronchial disease.
The film is not, as you can probably tell, the kind of escapist entertainment we should all be embracing during these trying times. But when I stumbled upon it this past weekend I couldn’t pass up the chance to see what this Daniel Defoe adaptation co-written by none other than Gabriel García Márquez (with Juan Arturo Brennan) was all about. Wanting to drown out the news I kept scrolling through on Twitter, I soon realized I would find no comfort in this bleak drama.
The Year of the Plague begins with a man collapsing with a coughing fit during his commute. Soon, though, we follow not patients but those in charge of mobilizing a response to what’s increasingly understood as a “plague.” And with every new scene I found myself witnessing a narrative not unlike our own. As the virus begins ravaging communities in the outskirts of the city, official pressers fudge numbers and neglect taking responsibility. A state-sanctioned TV newscast openly shares misleading statistics even as it buries footage of the social unrest that hazmat-suit wearing men are causing in working class neighborhoods. The wealthy make sure their families are safely escorted abroad even as they keep their own well-stocked hospital to themselves. So much of it felt so familiar.
By the time a doctor outlines what precautions the public should be taking (avoid crowds, engage in self-isolation) only to be cut off by a government official who tells him that what he’s outlining is “worse than the plague” he’s describing, I couldn’t help but hear the ALL-CAPS Twitter rant that was coming from the White House not too long ago: “We can’t let the cure be worse than the problem!”
It’s what makes this laconic and despairing drama a hard watch. Its washed out palette echoes its bleak outlook on the world where the rich and powerful can continue to thrive while the homeless, the poor and the disenfranchised suffer any and all consequences of a preventable health crisis. Sparse in plot and dialogue, you won’t find many scenes at hospitals tracking how the disease actually affects everyday people. This is perhaps what makes Cazals’ film so uncanny: as if mirroring the cruelty of the government officials it so perfectly skewers, The Year of the Plague keeps patients off screen, mere numbers to be displayed in televised graphs. This is a movie about what a lack of empathy can look like, both at the level of its plot as well as its form.
It’s no surprise that its ending leaves viewers with a discomforting unease. Here’s a film whose plot hinges on a government focused on keeping the economy afloat and a sense of normalcy at the expense of the poor, opting to deny the reality of a pandemic to avoid revealing how it runs on a broken system that’s designed to privilege the rich. “As long as the political bureaucracy manipulates institutions as their own plaything for the benefit of the ruling class to which they belong,” as one character puts it, “this country will continue to be screwed.”
To watch The Year of the Plague in the wake of the Coronavirus is to see a prophetic portrait of government inaction and of narcissistic heads of state. Namely: it may have felt like science fiction in late 1970s Mexico but it feels all too real in 2020.