In the year 1519, before Cortés and his bloodthirsty band of Spanish conquistadores took the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, a small group of Spanish soldiers led by Diego de Ordaz was sent up the volcano Popocatepetl to survey the entrance to the city. Led part of the way by Tlaxcalteca indigenous guides, the conquistadors eventually made it over the 18,000 foot summit and paved the way for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. In other words, they were assholes.
But their story is still a fascinating tale of human tenacity in the face of extreme circumstances, and the chronicle of their feat also happens to be one of legendary director Werner Herzog’s must-reads for emerging filmmakers. So when Mexican director Rubén Imaz caught wind of Herzog’s recommendation, he passed along the story to his partner in life and art, Yulene Olaizola, and they set about developing a feature a film.
The result is Epitafio (Epitaph), an appropriately Herzogian psychological adventure film that delves into all of the German filmmaker’s favorite themes (think obsession, blind faith, and madness) while exploring more uniquely Mexican phenomena like the country’s legacy of conquest and the clash of civilizations. All this is packaged in a simple, but beautifully shot visual style that revels in stunning landscapes, while the small cast works masterfully with the screenplay’s 16th-century Castellano dialogues.
Herzog would also be pleased to know that the film was shot over four weeks as the 19-person crew literally scaled Mexico’s highest mountain, Pico Orizaba. Luckily, like de Ordaz, they made it through alive.
Epitafio is currently playing in theaters across Mexico.