REVIEW: This Doc Tells the Wild, True Story of How Famed Architect Luis Barragán’s Ashes Got Turned Into a Diamond

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

There’s an outlandishness to the titular offering in Jill Magid‘s The Proposal. It involves, after all, an engagement ring, a years-long correspondence between two women, an art installation in Switzerland, an archive that’s been under lock and key for decades, and, oh yeah, the exhumation of a celebrated Mexican architect’s remains. Yet Magid’s documentary, with its soothing voice over and its exacting formal compositions — her shots could double as spreads on a coffee table book — makes the crazy story it’s telling sound almost quaint. At its center is Luis Barragán, one of Mexico’s preeminent architects in the twentieth century (“He had a literary idea of architecture,” as a friend explains in the doc). He’s both the reason for Magid’s “proposal” and the protagonist of her same-named documentary.

But first, some history: when Barragán died in 1988 he split his archive in two. By the early nineties, his personal archive remained in Mexico while his professional one was bought by the Chairman of the Swiss furniture company Vitra, allegedly as a gift for his fiancée, Federica Zanco. Zanco now serves as Director of the Barragan Foundation (note the lack of accent; that’s how it was registered). As Magid explains, that professional archive has been mostly closed off to anyone but Federica, much to the frustration of many in Barragán’s own home country. As Magid becomes more and more enamored of the Mexican architect’s work (much of which is recorded and photographed beautifully by her for the film), she begins to hatch a plan. A proposal.

Seeing as her correspondence with Federica is courteous but ultimately futile (she can’t get access to the archive, can’t nail down a way to do so), Magid sets her sights on a bizarre quest: she wants to exhume Barragán’s remains and get some of his ashes for an art installation she’s working on about his work. What drives her artistic output and this elliptical documentary is a series of related questions: “What happens to an artist’s legacy when it is owned by a corporation and subject to a country’s laws where none of his architecture exists? Who can access it? Who can’t?”

What happens to an artist’s legacy when it is owned by a corporation?

Slowly, we see Magid meeting with Barragán’s family, coaxing them into agreeing to such a brazen proposition, and putting into motion a rather implausible plan to convince Zanco (whose letters back and forth make up much of the film’s voice over narration) to return Barragán’s vast archive to Mexico. It’s the kind of plan only an artist like Magid could dream up, romantic and cheeky in equal measure, turning Barragán (quite literally) into an object to be exchanged between two women. In this case, a diamond made from his ashes that adorns an engagement ring the New York-based artist will gift Zanco –  on the condition that she commit to relocating the influential treasure trove she’s been handling for more than two decades in Switzerland. The “proposal” is not without its detractors, and Magid offers us plenty of examples of op-eds, articles, panels and news broadcasts that show just how controversial her entire gamble had been, especially in Mexico. If nothing else, it seems, she got plenty of people talking about Vitra’s handling of the archive, though many questions remain about what Barragán’s legacy looks like now that it’s entangled with Magid’s.

At once an intellectual exercise and an artistic manifesto of sorts, The Proposal also serves as an archive of Barragán’s work. Her time spent at his house in Mexico City frames much of the documentary: her slow pans across the rooms he created and lived in offer an intimate look at his literate take on architecture. And while audiences may balk at her impulse to center a story about a Mexican treasure on her own artistic vision –  (Does she really care about Barragán’s archive more than she does about her artwork about him? Is the film a conversation starter or a navel-gazing document?) there’s no denying that Magid’s attention-grabbing antics are hard to look away from.

The Proposal opens in New York May 24, 2019.